Image: John McCain
Carlos Osorio  /  AP
Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., visits Michigan to speak with workers about economic issues at the GM Technology Center.
updated 7/18/2008 1:20:17 PM ET 2008-07-18T17:20:17

Republican presidential candidate John McCain pledged Friday to help auto workers rebuild their industry and in the process jump-start the entire U.S. economy.

Standing in a town hall meeting with hundreds of people and several shiny new cars, McCain sounded at times like a confident, encouraging salesman as he praised General Motors' plans for a long-range electric car.

"The key, integral, vital part of our ability to eliminate our dependence on foreign oil will be directly related to that sign over there," said McCain, pointing to a sign for the Chevrolet Volt. "I wish you every success, and I want to help in every way."

Trailing Democrat Barack Obama in polling on economic issues, the likely Republican nominee sought to bolster his appeal to voters by speaking to those who've seen fellow workers lose jobs and homes in Michigan.

Even as Detroit's Big Three automakers try to adapt rapidly to demand for smaller, more efficient cars that sip $4- a-gallon gas, many in the industry fear the presidential candidates' talk of energy alternatives and conservation will translate into more job losses.

Earlier this week, GM announced $15 billion in cuts, borrowing and asset sales as it tries to weather a huge dropoff in sales of trucks and large cars on top of more long-term cost problems.

At the General Motors Corp. Design Center, GM CEO Rick Wagoner and other company officials gave McCain a tour before he spoke to engineers and other workers. McCain, who has proposed giving a $5,000 tax credit for those who buy a no-emissions car, said the successful technology would mean hundreds of thousands of new jobs.

Most questions from the crowd centered on economic issues like health care, free trade and the effect environmental laws could have on the U.S. auto industry.

McCain also pushed a plan for the government to help homeowners struggling to make their mortgage payments get a new, cheaper fixed-rate mortgage.

"There's thousands and thousands and thousands of citizens in this state who can't afford the payments to stay in their homes," he said.

Video: Who can help the economy? "We've got to hit bottom someplace and then it's going to start up again," he said, but until that happens, the government should work to keep people in their homes by giving them access to fixed-rate lending.

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While polls show McCain trails Obama on economic issues, Obama trails McCain on foreign affairs issues. Each candidate is trying to shore up his credentials in those perceived weaknesses, McCain by hammering domestic economic plans and Obama with a trip to the Middle East and Europe.

Last week the McCain campaign stumbled when a top economic adviser, former Sen. Phil Gramm, said that the nation was in a "mental recession" and had become "a nation of whiners" — sentiments McCain rejected. At his town hall event, members of the audience needed no convincing about the country's poor financial state.

"We're close to hitting rock bottom," said Barry Narris, a McCain supporter.

"Every time it seems like it's going to turn around a little bit, something else bad happens," echoed Julie Ferries, a design engineer. "It's one step forward, two steps back."

John Evans, a mechanical engineer, said he had been leaning toward voting for Obama but liked much of what McCain said.

"Economically, it's a sad state we're in," said Evans, noting that two homes bordering his are in foreclosure. "We need some real change, because we're not getting enough people educated in high-tech."

One woman questioned McCain pointedly on Iraq and how he would approach Iran.

"We lost Vietnam. You said you knew how to win wars. ... I don't know if winning wars is necessarily something that a president wants to do or should do," the woman said.

McCain said the United States needs to keep a steady, firm hand in dealings with both Iraq and Iran.

"I believe that we can modify Iranian behavior. We need to exhaust every possible option before we can ever consider a military option. Americans have made great sacrifices and it has grieved us all," he said. "If we failed, if we were defeated, we would face much greater sacrifice of American blood and treasure."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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