SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were both in Michigan this week to laud their economic plans ahead of the crucial primary there. The economy is still a top issue in Michigan. The state suffers from an unemployment rate of 9.3 percent. But Michigan's economy is also one of the most improved in the country over the past couple of years, and that's thanks in part to the recovery of the U.S. auto industry. In recent gains by automakers and other manufacturers could reshape the November election, especially in Midwestern swing states. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hourly workers at General Motors will soon be getting profit-sharing checks of up to $7,000 dollars each after the automaker reported record earnings this week. President Obama may also get a political dividend, two and a half years after a government-engineered turnaround.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Today, the American auto industry is back, and General Motors is once again the number one automaker in the world.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama reminded a group of United Auto Worker members this week back in 2009, his rescue of GM and Chrysler had plenty of critics. Opponents included Republican White House hopefuls Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, who were both campaigning in Michigan this week. Santorum told the Detroit Economic Club the right way to deal with automakers' problems in 2009 was to let the free market work.

RICK SANTORUM: Would the auto industry look different than it does today? Yes, it would be. Would it still be alive and well? I think it would be alive and equally as well, if not better.

HORSLEY: Santorum is running on a pro-manufacturing platform, stressing his roots in blue-collar Pennsylvania, as well as a tax plan that would make factories tax free. While other candidates talk about training programs for would-be factory workers, Santorum complains government handouts are discouraging industrial work.

SANTORUM: When you have 99 weeks of unemployment benefits and you have a variety of other social safety net programs, people can make choices that they otherwise wouldn't make if the economy was not one that government dependency was the watchword.

HORSLEY: Romney, whose father once ran an auto company, says he's glad that GM and Chrysler have rebounded. But he continues to criticize Mr. Obama's handling of the auto rescue. Romney calls it an example of crony capitalism because the autoworkers' union that supported Mr. Obama emerged with a stake in the companies.

MITT ROMNEY: When a president of the United States begins taking your money to give to his donors, that's a problem.

HORSLEY: While Romney regularly criticizes those he calls union stooges, Mr. Obama stressed cooperation between labor and management when he visited a unionized Master Lock plant in Milwaukee this week. Such cooperation has allowed CEO John Heppner to bring about 100 jobs back to the U.S. from China over the last year and a half.

JOHN HEPPNER: We figured out how to make this facility productive. It's about trust. We care more about mutual success than our own. When I look around and I look at the people in this room, I am thankful you're part of my team.

HORSLEY: Nationwide, factories have added more than 400,000 jobs over the last two years, and Mr. Obama wants to encourage more hiring. But part of these factories' success is their ability to do more with fewer workers. Veteran tool-and-die maker Don Olson says the Master Lock plant employs only about a third as many people as when he started 25 years ago. Back then, he says much of the work was done by hand.

DON OLSON: It looked like something out of the 40s. But they really automated since then. That's the only way we're bringing these jobs back, you know. We're well paid and we have a good benefit package, and in order to maintain that, you've got to make a lot of locks per person.

HORSLEY: And they do. Master Lock makes more padlocks than anyone else in the world. And Olson says they're built to last.

OLSON: I've still got mine from high school. 16-22-0, you know. And it still works.

HORSLEY: CEO Heppner joked about all the locks that weren't being made during the hours of preparation for the president's visit. So after the president left, Heppner's employees started up those automated machines, making more locks faster than ever. Scott Horsley, NPR News.

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