CINCINNATI -- Ohio has become the main battleground in a war of words in the last few weeks between President Obama and Mitt Romney over China's trade practices. “Ohio can’t afford another four years of Obama’s China policies,” shot a Romney press release on Wednesday before his stops in Westerville, Bedford Heights, and Toledo. That prompted the Obama campaign to retort: “Mitt Romney tough on China? Hardly.” The president was also in the Buckeye state for a campaign swing including Bowling Green, North Canton, and Kent State University.
Long before China became a big topic in the presidential race, Ohio’s Democratic senator, Sherrod Brown, took up the cause of slamming China for its trade, manufacturing, and currency practices. For years, Brown has been the Senate’s most dogged advocate of protectionist bills -- even criticizing Obama for not being tough enough on China's trade practices.
Brown’s signature legislation is the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act, aimed at cracking down on China’s currency policies. The bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support.
That could be one reason that both Brown and Obama are both now surging in the polls in Ohio -- even among the blue-collar whites who have been a tough sell for the president.
Nationally and in Ohio, Obama leads Romney with most voters. In a Gallup poll out on Wednesday, Obama leads Romney 50 percent to 44 percent nationally, and a Quinnipiac poll found that in Ohio, Obama leads Romney by 53 percent to 43 percent. The same poll found that Sen. Brown leads Republican challenger Josh Mandel in the state by 50 percent to 40 percent.
Among blue-collar whites -- the group Obama has struggled the most to reach -- Romney still has the lead nationally. In an Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor poll released on Sept. 21, Romney led Obama among noncollege whites by 54 percent to 37 percent. But in Ohio, that margin is much narrower -- Romney leads Obama among blue-collar whites by just 49 percent to 46 percent in the Quinnipiac poll.
Asked his thoughts on why he and Obama have made such gains among white blue-collar voters, Brown told National Journal, “I stand for something. I wake up every morning, I figure out how do you create jobs, how do you train veterans to go into the workplace, what do you with China and trade, how do you enforce trade laws? We have a new steel mill in Ohio because we enforced trade rules against the Chinese on oil country tubular steel.”
Mandel opposes Brown's currency legislation.
Dan Ellis, a 57-year-old unemployed veteran who attended Brown’s event on Tuesday morning, said the senator’s China polices are one reason the Democrat appeals to men like him.
“That’s a big issue. A friend of mine and I went up to Middletown, and I saw the biggest train I saw in years, and everything had Chinese writing on it. Something’s got to be addressed. Apple -- everything’s made over there. Can’t they let us make the stuff we’re buying? Maybe it’s time that we use a little protectionism, because China still does."
The auto bailout is another reason Democrats poll well among blue-collar whites in this industrial state. In the same Quinnipiac poll, 62 percent of Ohio voters thought the auto bailout was mostly a success, and 61 percent of noncollege educated whites believed it was a success.
In Middletown, a mostly white crowd of union workers gathered for a rally for Brown outside a union lodge next to the AK Steel factory. Their spirits undampened by rain, they clapped, cheered, and hooted for Brown, who walked among the crowd, saying hello, slapping backs, and shaking hands. Half a dozen AK Steel workers got up to speak for Brown. Retired AK Steel worker Kendall Mays said that he and other company retirees have been concerned about whether their pension trust fund would remain solvent. Foreign companies that don't have the same protections for labor are sending cheap exports to the United States, he said, adding that "it becomes worrisome if a company like AK can stay open in the U.S."
Brown has taken on the fight to combat this problem with the auto bailout, outlining a four-point manufacturing strategy that includes going after foreign countries for currency manipulation, and supporting unions.
"We're bringing back manufacturing jobs because of the auto rescue, we've gained them back because we're enforcing trade rules. Youngstown has a new steel plant because we're enforcing trade rules. In Sidney, Ohio, more aluminum is being made because were enforcing trade rules. Because we're standing up to China, we're fighting for American business and American manufacturers," said Brown, who spent Wednesday addressing those groups, first at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College where he spoke to a group of unemployed veterans taking job-training classes, and later at Middletown.