) -- Many Republicans oppose the billions of dollars in bailouts that saved the U.S. auto industry, but former President George W. Bush isn't among them.

"I'd do it again," Bush said Monday during the closing address at the annual National Automobile Dealers Association convention in Las Vegas, according to

The Detroit News

. "I didn't want there to be 21% unemployment."

In the closing days of his administration in December 2008, after Congress failed to act, Bush provided the auto industry with $25 billion in emergency aid, including $13.4 billion for


(GM) - Get Report

and $4 billion for


. In its early days in office, the Obama administration in 2009 provided another $60 billion.

"I didn't want to saddle my successor with an additional economic crisis," Bush said, according to the newspaper. Instead, he extended the loan long enough for Obama "to get his team on the ground and deal with it."

Chrysler repaid its loans last May, while GM has repaid about $23 billion. The U.S. Treasury owns 26% of GM's shares. Chrysler reported a 2011 profit last week while GM, which is also profitable, will report full-year earnings next week.

The bailout of the U.S. auto industry is shaping up to be a principal issue in the 2012 presidential election. One sign is the current round of political debate over Chrysler's "Halftime in America" Super Bowl ad, in which Clint Eastwood proclaims that the U.S. should take a lesson from Detroit, which toughed it out and emerged stronger after the recession.

"The fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead," Eastwood said. But "we find a way through tough times, and if we can't find a way, then we'll make one." It seems, on the surface, to be a tribute to American resourcefulness, as epitomized by Detroit, and on top of that it is an ad for Chrysler products. But some see a conspiratorial element.

"The leadership of auto companies feel they need to do something to repay their political patronage," Republican strategist Karl Rove said Monday on

Fox News

. "It is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising."

Another bailout opponent is Mitt Romney, front-runner in the race for the Republican nomination, who told

The Detroit News

in September that the bailout was wrong. "They needed to move into a managed bankruptcy process rather than getting money up front by President Bush or President Obama," Romney said then. "They wasted a lot of money."

Bush told the auto dealers that said he believed in the free market. "But sometimes circumstances get in the way of philosophy," he said. "I would make the same decision again."


Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.

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