WASHINGTON Move over Vietnam. A candidate's position on the free trade deal that links the United States with Mexico and Canada may have more bearing on the presidential race than 30-year-old military records.
Support or opposition for the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1993 has become a campaign touchstone as both parties debate the loss of millions of U.S. jobs overseas.
Yet trade experts and economists say the reality is that only a small proportion of displaced U.S. workers lost their jobs as a result of the pact that dismantled trade barriers among the three countries.
Far more U.S. jobs have been lost to China, India and other low-wage nations in Asia.
John Edwards, trying to distinguish himself from the Democratic presidential front-runner, John Kerry, brings up NAFTA at nearly every campaign stop, blaming the pact for massive job losses in this country.
''It's a powerful issue, one I can relate to specifically,'' says Edwards. The North Carolina senator frequently cites his humble origins as the son of a textile worker who lost his job when his mill closed.
Edwards criticizes his Senate colleague from Massachusetts for voting for NAFTA, says he would have voted against it had he been in the Senate at the time and pledges to renegotiate the pact if he wins the White House.
Kerry shrugs off the comparison. He asserts that his position on trade and Edwards' are much the same and notes that both lawmakers voted for a measure in 2000 granting permanent trade benefits to China.
But beating up on NAFTA plays well in rust-belt industrial states that are critical to the presidential race and where free-trade is scorned and the trade agreement is still blamed for the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.
Edwards' advisers say the issue resonates with voters in upstate New York and in many of the other contests on ''Super Tuesday'' March 2, including Georgia and Ohio, just as it did in Wisconsin. In that primary, a stronger-than-expected second place finish last week kept Edwards' presidential race alive.
President Bush wants to extend NAFTA, which was mostly negotiated under his father's administration and pushed through Congress by President Clinton, to other nations in the hemisphere and to reach similar free trade pacts elsewhere.
Bush has offered such arrangements to nations such as Australia and Thailand that supported the United States in Iraq. But Bush has not mentioned free trade agreements much lately as he talks about his economic programs and the dispute over displaced U.S. workers.
Bush has had his own problems on the jobs front in recent days. First he had to distance himself from a White House economist who said shifting U.S. jobs to foreign countries was good for the U.S. economy in the long run. Then the president had to back away from a White House jobs projection that his advisers decided was too optimistic.
The U.S. economy has posted 42 consecutive months of declines in manufacturing jobs, totaling just over 3 million lost jobs. The bulk of these happened on Bush's watch, making it a potent election issue for Democrats.
Only a fraction of the manufacturing job losses can be blamed on NAFTA, said Gary Hufbauer, a trade expert at the Institute for International Economics. In fact, most of the jobs were lost not because of trade but because of increases in plant productivity and a reluctance of U.S. companies to hire back workers after the 2001 recession, he said.
''A lot of that is being inordinately blamed on trade,'' he said.
While there always is a political tension between advocating free trade and protecting American jobs, ''it has bubbled to the surface in this election. You'd have to go back to the '30s to get this kind of intensity. It's really quite surprising,'' Hufbauer said.
A Labor Department office set up to help workers displaced because of NAFTA certified 79,395 workers eligible for benefits in 2001, 112,376 in 2002 and 17,641 in 2003. Other records show that 80 percent of such laid-off workers were re-employed within 26 weeks.
Back on the Democratic campaign trail, Edwards asserts: ''It's clear that Sen. Kerry and I have a very different record on trade,'' noting that Kerry voted for NAFTA while he opposed it.
Retorts Kerry: ''He wasn't in the Senate back then. I don't know where he registered his vote, but it wasn't in the Senate.''
Edwards argues that he opposed it all along and campaigned against it in his 1998 Senate race.
But the one-term senator acknowledges there is no documentation on his position before 1998, while he was working as a plaintiff's trial lawyer. But news accounts at the time show it was not a major issue because both Edwards and then-incumbent Republican Sen. Lauch Faircloth both opposed NAFTA.
Even though he voted for measure giving China most-favored trading status, Edwards voted against free trade pacts with Singapore, African and Caribbean nations.
Both Edwards and Kerry say future trade agreements should provide labor and environmental protections.
Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.
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