SANDUSKY, Ohio (AP) — President Barack Obama's bus trip on Thursday through northern Ohio took him to several areas with big auto plants as he defended his decision to rescue U.S. automakers.
After a morning stop in the Toledo suburb of Maumee, Obama arrived at a park in Sandusky just blocks from Lake Erie. Hundreds of people packed the sidewalks in the downtown area, and school buses lined the park on all sides for security.
Russ Dickman, of Sandusky, said the auto industry's health has a big impact on everyone. But he said the economy isn't where it used to be.
"Not yet," Dickman said while sitting on the steps of a merry-go-round museum in Sandusky's quaint downtown. "I can see it getting there."
Terry Jones, a truck driver who hauls auto parts, was straining to hear Obama's voice on a loudspeaker from two blocks away. He said the rebounding auto industry will help the president a great deal.
"Ohio is a key state, and that's most of your workers in autos," he said.
Earlier, hundreds of supporters, including several wearing United Auto Workers union T-shirts, waited in Maumee for two hours for Obama's arrival.
"The best thing he ever could have done was save the auto industry," said William Harris of Holland, a worker for a Chrysler engine plant in Detroit for 36 years before retiring. "It's not back yet, but it's come a long ways."
Former Gov. Ted Strickland, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown warmed up the crowd in Maumee, all touting the auto industry's revival. Brown applauded U.S. efforts to defend American auto jobs against what he called unfair Chinese trade practices.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, two potential vice presidential nominees, were sent out by Republicans to counter Obama in some of the same towns where the president was stopping.
"We should all bet on the country, but we shouldn't double down on Barack Obama," Pawlenty said Thursday. "He's had his chance. It's not working. And we need to get it moving in a different direction."
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, another potential Romney running mate, wrote a column in an Ohio newspaper Thursday accusing Obama of implementing policies that "make it harder, not easier, to create jobs here in Ohio and around the country."
People at Obama's morning event agreed the auto industry is key for the area but had varying opinions on the political impact of the auto bailout.
Thomas Hutton, a retired pharmacist from Toledo, said the auto industry is important but he didn't think it would be a defining issue for the presidential campaign.
"It's a side issue," he said. "The big ones are the economy and heath care."
Army retiree Glenn Shields said preserving jobs is good, but he thinks the auto companies should've recognized their problems sooner. He said the auto bailout will be an important issue in November.
"It's going to be a major factor," said the 69-year-old. "The big issue will be the growing debt related to the bailout."
Linda Schneider of Maumee said she was unemployed four years ago before getting a human resources job with a Toledo-area auto parts company.
"This is an auto region," she said. "We need (the industry) to survive."
After an ice cream social in Sandusky, Obama headed to the Cleveland suburb of Parma and an appearance at a park surrounded by shade trees.
Several blocks down the street, more than 50 people gathered to await the presidential motorcade. Most were curious neighbors, and a few held anti-Obama signs, including one saying "Are you better off than you were 4 trillion dollars ago?"
Mark Walker, 59, of Cleveland, a Catholic and self-described nominal Democrat, carried a sign reading "Religious Freedom Now." He said he objected to the administration mandate that most employers provide health insurance that covers birth control, a move opposed by the church.
Federal officials say the rule is critical to women's health by helping them space out pregnancies.
"I feel the administration, through its own edict, is establishing its own religion," Walker said.
Obama's schedule Friday includes visiting an elementary school in Poland, Ohio, near Youngstown. He'll then speak at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh
Associated Press writer Thomas J. Sheeran in Parma, Ohio, contributed to this report.