The CEOs of Tesla and Fisker may have thought they were home free--but it was not to be.
Both startup electric-car companies were named at the very end of last night's third and final presidential debate.
Republican candidate Mitt Romney didn't repeat his charge that Tesla Motors [NSDQ:TSLA] and Fisker Automotive were 'loser' companies--as he said in the first debate on October 3.
Instead, he took the line that government support for specific companies discouraged all investment in U.S. industry.
And some observers felt he moved beyond criticizing such support to conveying his contempt for plug-in electric cars in general.
Debate watchers among electric-car advocates took to Facebook and Twitter to express their shock over Romney's tone, as the candidate named "car companies like Tesla and...Fisker" that were making--in his words--"electric battery cars."
The topic of electric-car companies followed a recurring dispute over whether Romney's November 2008 editorial in The New York Times, entitled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," promised government support for automakers if they went through a conventional bankruptcy process.
Romney claimed he had advocated for such support; Obama disagreed, saying Romney would have "liquidated" the industry.
After Romney reiterated that he was in favor of government support of industry research, he turned to Tesla, Fisker, and also failed solar-panel maker Solyndra.
According to the complete debate transcript, he said:
I have the kind of commitment to make sure that our industries in this country can compete and be successful. We in this country can compete successfully with anyone in the world. And we’re going to.
We’re going to have to have a president, however, that doesn’t think that somehow the government investing in — in car companies like Tesla and — and Fisker, making electric battery cars — this is not research, Mr. President.
These are the government investing in companies, investing in Solyndra. This is a company. This isn’t basic research. I — I want to invest in research. Research is great. Providing funding to universities and think tanks — great.
But investing in companies? Absolutely not. That’s the wrong way to go.
Technically, the U.S. government has not "invested" in any of the named companies. It does not have an ownership share--unlike its equity holding in General Motors and, previously, Chrysler.
Instead, both car companies received low-interest loan guarantees from the U.S. Department of Energy under its Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing program, launched in 2008 under the administration of President George W. Bush.
Romney followed his criticism of Tesla and Fisker by reiterating that he "wanted to make America more competitive" and "do those things that make America the most attractive place in the world for entrepreneurs, innovators, businesses to grow."
He then said to Obama, "But your investing in companies doesn’t do that. In fact it makes it less likely for them to come here."
President Barack Obama did not respond specifically to the criticism of Tesla and Fisker.
Predictably, electric-car advocates reacted adversely to Romney's words.
"What I don't get is why, with all of the crazy things our taxpayer dollars get spent on, Romney keeps beating the Tesla drum," observed Tom Saxton of Plug-In America on Facebook.
In attacking Tesla, he said, the governor is "beating down a company that's developing new technology, creating American jobs, reinvigorating the American auto industry, and maybe leading us to an opportunity not to be so totally dependent on the world oil market."
"What I find interesting is he's alienated a lot of Republicans who support electric cars--and, yes, there are quite a few of them," commented electric-car advocate and Montclair, New Jersey, restauranteur Tom Moloughney.
"I personally know at least 10 people who are Republicans, who didn't vote for Obama in the last election, but are going to in this one because of Romney's stance on the issue."
Neither Tesla nor Fisker arose during the second presidential debate, and Fisker was only indirectly cited in the Ryan-Biden vice-presidential debate.