DONNA CASSATACHILLICOTHE, Ohio (AP) â¿¿ Josh Mandel, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, declines to take a stand on the 2009 bailout of the auto industry and reserves judgment on vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan's plans for Medicare. "I have not come out in support or opposition to the bailout," he said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. The federal government's decision three years ago to help Chrysler and General Motors is considered crucial in Mandel's home state of Ohio, where some 850,000 are working due to the auto industry. The economy has been on the upswing in the state, with unemployment at 7.2 percent in August, below the national average of 8.1 percent that month. Pressed for his opinion of the bailout, Mandel said twice: "It depends on who you talk to." Mandel barely had moved into the state treasurer's office after his November 2010 win before he was running against first-term Sen. Sherrod Brown, a populist Democrat facing strong Republican headwinds statewide. Democrats say Mandel lacks the experience and substance to earn a seat in the venerable institution. But Ohio is the ultimate battleground prize in the presidential election, and the fate of the Senate candidates is linked closely to President Barack Obama and Republican rival Mitt Romney. A Republican surge could carry Mandel to victory. Four weeks out, polls show Obama and Brown with a slight edge. At a recent campaign stop, Mandel joked about his boyish appearance. "I look 19 years old," the 35-year-old Mandel said. "Twenty," yelled one woman at the small gathering on East Main Street in the heart of southern Ohio's Ross County. Adding to the levity, Mandel riffed on what year he'll be shaving. For all the good-natured ribbing, this is serious business for Republicans, underscored by a sign on the wall at the GOP storefront â¿¿ "We need your help taking back America" â¿¿ as well as the placards along a winding stretch of U.S. 23 south of Chillicothe that urge Ohioans to "Vote Josh Mandel, Change Washington."