By Andy Sullivan
TOLEDO (Reuters) - In a presidential election that could feature two Harvard-trained candidates not known for their common touch, President Barack Obama's campaign deployed a new weapon on Thursday: Vice President Joe Biden.
With a tough re-election fight looming in November, Obama campaign officials hope Biden's back-slapping demeanor and humble origins will help win the support of blue collar voters.
Though Obama did not win the white working class vote in 2008, he will have to hold losses to a manageable level in order to win industrial Midwestern states like Ohio that will be crucial battlegrounds in the fall, analysts say.
Biden flew to this battered industrial city to celebrate the revival of the U.S. auto industry and criticized the Republican presidential candidates who say the government should not have stepped in to help it.
He had another message for the auto workers who have seen factories go dark and neighborhoods empty out: I understand what you are going through. "As a kid I saw my dad trapped in a city where all the good jobs were gone," Biden said, referring to his childhood in the faded industrial town of Scranton, Pennsylvania.
The election is likely to turn on the state of the economy and the Obama administration sees the auto bailout as one of its best chances to convince voters that the deepest recession since the 1930s could have been much worse.
For Obama, the auto industry bailout is a chance to win back working-class white voters who have abandoned the party in droves over the past decades.
Obama won in 2008 thanks to a coalition of minorities, young people and college-educated white voters. In Ohio, he lost the white working-class vote by 10 percentage points even as he carried the state.
But those voters can still swing an election, as Obama's fellow Democrats found out in the 2010 midterm elections when strong support from seniors and working class voters helped Republicans win control of the House of Representatives.
Obama will need to limit his losses among this group in order to win Ohio and other Rust Belt states, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
He could catch a break if front-runner Mitt Romney secures the Republican nomination. Romney, a former private equity executive worth as much as $250 million, has struggled to win working-class voters as he battles Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator, and Newt Gingrich, former U.S. House speaker, in the state-by-state Republican nominating contest.
A number of gaffes - such as challenging a rival to a $10,000 bet and stating that "I like firing people" - has given critics ammunition to argue that he is out of touch with ordinary voters.
Obama has rolled out new initiatives designed to appeal to working class voters. In January, he unveiled a plan to boost domestic manufacturing, which is seen as a source of good jobs for people without a college degree, and he has proposed increased spending on road construction and other infrastructure to generate more construction work.
These initiatives have been portrayed as part of a larger effort to build an economy in which hard work pays off for everyone, not just the most affluent. And as they are blocked by Republicans in Congress opposed to more government spending, they serve as fodder for the campaign trail.
MORE THAN A PAYCHECK
"A job is about a lot more than a paycheck - it's about your dignity, it's about respect, it's about your place in the community, it's about being able to turn to your kids and say, ‘it's going to be OK.' I don't think these guys understand that," Biden said.
Biden was picked as vice president in 2008 in part because of his ability to appeal to working-class voters, said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
"My sense is that the fairness issue he has been using is part of an appeal to those voters," he said.
Biden said the auto-industry bailout provided the clearest contrast between the administration's efforts to preserve middle class jobs and the hands-off approach advocated by Republicans. Republican candidates say the industry would have recovered on its own and have criticized the bailout as a giveaway to unions.
"If you give any of these guys the keys to the White House they will bankrupt the middle class again," Biden said.
Auto-industry analysts say more than 1 million jobs would have disappeared had the government not stepped in at the height of the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 to extend loans to General Motors and Chrysler and guide them through the bankruptcy process.
The industry has added 200,000 jobs since then and GM has regained its perch as the world's biggest automaker.
Public support for the bailout has increased. A February 2012 Pew Research Center poll found that 56 percent said the GM and Chrysler loans were "mostly good for the economy," up from 37 percent in October 2009. Other recession-fighting efforts, such as the Wall Street bailout of 2008 and the 2009 stimulus package, remain unpopular.
The auto bailout could help Obama hold Ohio, Michigan and other Midwestern battleground states in the fall. One in eight Ohio jobs is connected in some way to the auto industry, and the unemployment rate has fallen from 8.9 percent in July 2011 to 7.7 percent in January, below the national average.
Chrysler recently announced it was adding a second shift at its Toledo plant, creating 1,100 jobs in 2013. A nearby GM transmission plant now employs 1,600, up from 400 during the depths of the crisis, according to workers.
"I've never seen a Republican yet that's ever come close to supporting working families," said Bill Lewis, a GM transmission plant worker at the rally. "We owe our livelihood to the Democrats."
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Vicki Allen)