Obama chides GOP for auto bailout opposition

Updated 6:39 p.m. Eastern Time

In an energetic speech to 1,600 auto workers, President Obama took aim at Republican presidential candidates for their opposition to the auto bailout. His remarks came the same day Michigan voters head to the polls for the Republican primary.

The president's speech was a direct reminder to members of the United Auto Workers that he engineered the bailout that supporters credit with saving the Michigan-based American auto industry.

The president alluded to his Republican opponents, saying there were those who wanted to "throw in the towel" on auto workers. (Watch video at left.)

"Some even said we should let Detroit go bankrupt," President Obama said referring to the title of a 2008 op-ed by Mitt Romney published in the New York Times in which Romney argued against a federal bailout. In the op-ed, Romney said he favored a "managed bankruptcy" for Detroit automakers -- exactly the course eventually taken by the Obama administration for two of the "big three" automakers. The primary difference between Romney's proposal and the administration's action was that Romney opposed the use of taxpayer dollars for a bailout, instead pushing for government-guaranteed loans from private backs. (The administration argues this would not have worked, since banks weren't lending at the time.) Romney said recently he would have changed the op-ed's title -- which he did not write -- to "How to Save Detroit."

Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd Tuesday, Mr. Obama said, "Think about what that choice would have been for this country if we turned our backs on you, if America would have thrown in the towel."

Democrats and the UAW have worked to remind voters about the Republicans' positions against the bailout, which is popular in Michigan. The state's Republican governor Rick Snyder - who endorsed Romney - supports it.

Although it wasn't billed as a campaign speech, the president's remarks featured campaign-style rhetoric - meant not only to take jabs at his opponents, but also to excite the crowd.

(Watch White House press secretary Jay Carney respond to CBS News chief White House correspondent Norah O'Donnell's questions whether President Obama's speech was a campaign speech.)

"You know why I knew this rescue would succeed? It's because I believed in you. I placed my bet on the American worker, and I will make that bet any day of the week," Mr. Obama said to thunderous applause and chants of "four more years."

"As long as you've got an ounce of fight in you, I've got a ton of fight left in me," the president said.

The UAW annual conference is being used as a platform to launch re-election efforts for the president.

King wrote to union members recently and said they have a "unique opportunity ... to re-elect President Obama."

"President Obama has been seriously focused on his jobs agenda since he took office, beginning with one of his first acts - saving the American auto industry," said King. "He stood with workers and the American auto industry, and the communities whose economies depend on the industry and saved more than one million American jobs."

Unions are considered a strong organizing force for Democratic politics and the UAW has more than 360,000 members and 600,000 retired members across the country, with many of those residing in Michigan.

Michgan's primary is open, which means that registered Democrats can vote as well. Some Democratic voters are organizing to vote in the primary for former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, seeing him as an easier challenger against President Obama.

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    Leigh Ann Caldwell is a political reporter for CBSNews.com.