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Ford Presses Its Agenda on Hill

To legions of die-hard car racing fans, Ford is an acronym for “First On Race Day.— But the track-side rallying cry of Detroit’s perennial No. 2 producer is also fast becoming its moniker on Capitol Hill, where Ford Motor Co. is being greeted as a hero of the down economy.

“There are Members of Congress from both parties who are very interested in hearing your story. It’s almost like people are rooting for you,— Ford lobbyist Ziad Ojakli said this week. “You get questions about your game plan. There are a lot of folks who say, ‘Good for you.’—

So with plenty of political good will in the bank, Ford got to work Tuesday spending it, pushing for legislation that would punish states for not penalizing drivers for text messaging while they’re at the wheel.

Along with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Governors Highway Safety Association, the company held an event in a RFK Stadium parking lot highlighting the perils of text messaging while driving.

A virtuous cause, no doubt. But the automaker could also stand to benefit financially from a nationwide ban on text messaging while driving. Ford and its affiliates are the lone distributors of Sync, a Microsoft technology that converts a driver’s voice into a text message.

When it comes to the domestic car industry’s voice on the Hill, Ford has little competition.

Earlier this year, Ford’s two domestic counterparts, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Group, entered bankruptcy protection after government loans failed to stop the bleeding. GM in June was purchased by the U.S. government, Canadian authorities and the company’s bondholders, while Chrysler was unloaded on the Italian producer Fiat SpA, a United Auto Workers trust fund and the U.S. and Canadian governments.

And with the federal government now holding the reins of Chrysler and GM, sources say lawmakers are looking to Ford to lead the retooled domestic auto industry.

Since declaring bankruptcy, Chrysler and GM are considered scarce in Capitol Hill offices. Following its restructuring, GM all but swore off its Hill outreach, retaining its in-house lobbying team for emergencies but pledging not to pay any outside help while government bureaucrats were in charge. Chrysler continues to be represented by lobbying shops Venable and Timmons and Co.

Ford is “in a really good position. In that industry, what happens in the marketplace often drives how people perceive you in Washington,— a Democratic aide said. “There is a huge number of people who are looking for Ford to succeed at a time when GM and Chrysler are seen as laggards that had to go get government money.—

Domestic automobile sales data can be hard to come by, but industry analyst Erich Merkle said Ford’s market share has increased dramatically during the past year. Merkle said the company was long considered “the Pepsi to GM’s Coke— but predicted that standing would soon change.

By selling off Saturn and junking Pontiac, Merkle said GM’s market share in the United States dropped to 19.5 percent in the first eight months of this year compared with nearly 22 percent from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, 2008.

In contrast, Ford sold nearly 16 percent of the country’s cars in the first eight months of this year compared with 15 percent from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, 2008.

“GM will likely continue to lose market share as they lose brands and consolidate their brands,— Merkle said. “Within the next 24 months, I think GM will fall to about 16 percent market share, and I expect Ford to surpass them.—

Merkle is president of Autoconomy.

A Democratic lobbyist agreed that many lawmakers are willing to lend Ford their ear because it didn’t run to Congress with its hand out.

“It’s a big help to not have government funds, whether it’s in the car industry or the financial services industry,— the lobbyist said. “There’s a certain negative connotation about what you can lobby for once you’ve taken government money.—

“Most importantly, the fact [Ford] didn’t take government money sends a message that they’re healthier than other companies,— the lobbyist continued. “And they do seem to be the only healthy American car company.—

The lobbyist also praised Ford CEO Alan Mulally for breaking the Capitol Hill stereotype of Big Three executives.

“He came to the Hill early and often and came across as somebody who was open-minded and has new ideas,— the lobbyist said. “They’ve got a great CEO, they’re forward-leaning and they don’t just say no to everything.—

In the coming months, Ford also plans to lobby on climate change legislation and a trade deal with South Korea, a market the company desperately would like break into.

“The sad part is we sell more cars at Jerry’s Ford in Northern Virginia than we do in all of Korea in a given year,— Ojakli said. “It’s the most closed market in the world.—

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