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The U.S. economy is rebounding well from the coronavirus pandemic despite a surge in cases that is threatening the recovery, Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday during a visit at an Ohio assembly plant. (June 25)

AP Domestic

General Motors’ former Lordstown Assembly Plant has frequently been used to highlight the heartbreak and promise of the American auto industry.

When Vice President Mike Pence came to the 6.2-million-square-foot plant on Thursday, he focused on the latter with a message that showcased the political stakes at play in the key state of Ohio during what is clearly an unusual election year.

The plant once operated by General Motors now has a new owner, Lordstown Motors, and rather than producing the gas-powered Chevy Cruise, the plant — that President Donald Trump had criticized GM for closing — is now charged with making an electric pickup. That pickup, the Endurance, made its debut Thursday, carrying the hopes of a region keen to hold onto its manufacturing base at a time of particular uncertainty, with an economy struggling to regain its footing amid the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Pence, however, spread a positive message, saying the country is on the rebound after being hit by the worst pandemic in a hundred years.

“America’s coming back,” Pence announced at one point. “The recovery is on.”

Pence, who chose not to wear a face mask, noted his role in helping lead the country’s coronavirus response, which has faced withering criticism from some amid a mounting death toll and rapid spread in the South and West. Pence said that it was the president’s decisive action early on that had bought vital time. Pence said that he would be traveling to Texas and Arizona in the coming days to meet officials there.

Aside from noting that the economy had been roaring before the pandemic, with low unemployment for African-Americans and Hispanics, and ticking off other accomplishments on trade and relations with China, Pence emphasized Lordstown and its people:

“The best days in Lordstown and Ohio and America are yet to come.”

“Endurance isn’t just the name of the pickup truck, endurance describes the character of the people of the Mahoning Valley.”

Pence rode inside as the silver truck, with black strips and orange and black wheels, drove onto the stage. The truck, a prototype ahead of next year’s expected production version, acted as backdrop as Pence emphasized a future for Lordstown, which once employed 5,000 workers.

And highlighting what is a unique relationship many Americans have with their pickups, a crucially profitable piece of auto sales, Pence noted that he’s a truck guy. Truck owners are a key demographic for Trump’s reelection hopes. Incidentally, Thursday is also the day Ford unveils its new F-150.

The fate of the plant had been a key focus ahead of GM/UAW contract talks last year, and frustration with the automaker’s decision to walk away has been a concern not just for labor but also among Ohio’s political establishment. However, Business Insider reported recently that Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said the state would rather focus on creating jobs than trying to claw back $60 million in public subsidies GM had received. 

Lordstown Motors Founder and CEO Steve Burns said GM did his company a great service by leaving the massive plant intact.

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“That was a big ask, but they did it,” he said.

The plant could produce 400,000 Cruises per year, but Burns said in the future the plant could potentially make 600,000 trucks. And as soon as next year, assuming production is under way, four hundred assembly line workers and hundreds of other workers and engineers could be employed.

Lordstown Motors is working against time, with several other companies developing their own electric trucks, but the Endurance is geared toward fleet customers. Raising hopes for the success of the Endurance, however, are 14,000 pre-orders. 

Burns said the plant and its surrounding area have the potential to become the “electrification hub of the Midwest,” and maybe the country.

As for the truck itself, Burns indicated it would impress.

The Endurance base price is $52,500, before counting the $7,500 federal tax credit. The company promises a range of at least 250 miles per charge. The truck is powered by four in-wheel hub motors, which Burns said should give it good traction in muddy conditions and mean few moving parts to wear out, and it claims up to 600 horsepower and towing capacity of 7,500 pounds.

Burns described the dash area as minimalistic, with a screen as well as knobs because fleet customers say their drivers might be wearing gloves.

“It’s a pickup truck that handles like a sports car. It’s a reinvention. We are hitting (the market) at the exact right time,” he said.

Follow Eric D. Lawrence on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence.

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