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Romney bashes auto union leaders in Michigan

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at an economic roundtable in Kentwood, Mich., Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2012. AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Updated 11:04 p.m. ET

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - Campaigning in Michigan, a labor stronghold, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney bashed union leaders and their ties to the Obama White House, calling the bailout of the auto industry payback for its bosses contributions to the president's campaign in 2008.

As his rival, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, courts the blue-collar vote in the state, Romney has launched a full-force attack on unions and the 2009 bailout of the auto industry. At a rally in Grand Rapids, a generally conservative part of the state, Romney said that Obama got "hundreds of millions" from labor bosses during his campaign "and so he's paying them back in every way he knows how. One way, of course, was giving General Motors and Chrysler to the UAW."

A day earlier, United Auto Workers President Bob King scolded Romney for spurning the auto industry. "He can try and rewrite history as much as he wants, but when we were at our darkest hour, Mitt Romney turned his back on the industry, their workers and the people of Michigan and in other places where Americans depend on the auto industry," King said in a statement.

Romney said Wednesday, "I've taken on union bosses before, and I'm happy to take them on again, because I happen to believe that you can protect the interests of American taxpayers, and you can protect a great industry like automobiles without having to give in to the UAW, and I sure won't."

Romney has been strongly defending his longstanding position that Detroit should not have received a government bailout in 2009, but rather should have undergone a managed bankruptcy. At a meeting with local business leaders before the rally, Romney claimed that Obama actually had agreed with that approach but took a different path for personal interests.

"The auto companies needed to go through managed bankruptcy to shed their excess costs," Romney said. "And it took him six months to get there, but he got to the same place that I had suggested. But he gave the companies to the UAW when he was finished with the process. That again is something which I think is consistent with the fact that he got a lot of money from organized labor and felt that he should give them a favor."

Romney did not mention Santorum, his biggest threat in Michigan's Feb. 28 primary according to recent polls, although his campaign tried to also tie Santorum to organized labor by calling him "Big Labor's Favorite Senator" in press releases.