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Democrats appeal to NAFTA resentment

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama participate in a debate in Cleveland, Ohio. Clinton and Obama will face off in the crucial Texas and Ohio primaries on March 4.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: There was a lot of economy alongside national security at the President's press conference this morning. He took a question about the Democratic candidates and their positions on the North American Free Trade Agreement. He turned it into a call for Congress to pass a free trade deal with Colombia.

Out in Ohio, though, it's all NAFTA all the time this week. Primary Day's next Tuesday. John McCain and Mike Huckabee will be on the Republican ballot. But it is the Democrats who're getting most of the press. Both campaigns have been sending out mailers to voters trying to claim their candidate's the one that's been opposed to the trade agreement the longest.

From WCPN in Cleveland, Mhari Saito reports.


SAITO: Attend rallies in Ohio these days and you hear a common theme:

HILLARY CLINTON: Let's get real about the future of trade in this country - let's get real about NAFTA. It simply isn't working for all Americans.

BARAK OBAMA: If you're ready for change, we can go ahead and say to the companies we're taking away your tax breaks if you ship jobs overseas. We're going to give those tax credits to companies that invest right here in Youngstown, and right here in Ohio.

Barack Obama says more than 50,000 jobs have been lost to NAFTA. Nationally, he says over a million jobs have been lost. Overall, though, the US Trade Representative says the United States gained 25 million jobs since NAFTA went into effect in 1994. Still, in Ohio manufacturing has taken a huge hit. So, as you can imagine, NAFTA and free trade agreements in general aren't very popular among union card carrying Democrats. Paul Beck is a political scientist at Ohio State.

PAUL BECK: That particular group, and it's a very large group, is one that both candidates are courting very assiduously and one understands why because they could be the pivotal group within the Ohio electorate.

So, the anti-NAFTA rhetoric is heating up. It's even more pointed because Clinton's husband, Bill, helped push NAFTA through in 1993. The Obama campaign recently sent out a mailer claiming Hillary Clinton once supported NAFTA. It's a claim the Clinton campaign rejects, but worker Eugene Jordan is paying close attention. His union, Service Employees International, has endorsed Obama.

EUGENE JORDAN: It was her husband, Bill, that put that trade in place. So I can't see where she going to change nothing right now. I mean, it's the same old politics.

Retired steel worker Heather Boli was laid off from Timken, a maker of machine bearings, not long after NAFTA took effect in 1994. She says she's heard politicians make promises before.

HEATHER BOLI: They say a lot of things to get elected and then, you know. I was a Bush supporter and he didn't to turn out to do a lot of what he said either. It's a very hard decision.

The Obama and Clinton proposals on trade aren't all that different, says Case Western Reserve economist Sue Helper. Both candidates would let people sue if a company didn't live up to labor and anti-pollution laws in other countries.

SUE HELPER: If we can change the trade agreements so that it's less attractive to compete on basis of low wages, and sweat shops and poor environmental conditions, that benefits both workers here in US and it also benefits the workers in other countries.

But workers like Matt Hulett think that's not realistic. The 29-year-old's last day of work at the Hoover plant in North Canton was last Friday. Last year a Hong Kong-based company bought Hoover. Now its closed the 100-year-old plant and moved jobs to Texas and Mexico. Hulett thinks politicians could have thought of solutions much earlier.

MATT HULETT There's a lot they can do about it but I think they dug a hole deep enough that we can't even get out of it.

Hulett doesn't believe politicians will change trade agreements that help companies compete globally, even at the expense of American jobs.

MATT HULETT This country is still great. I mean I wouldn't want to be born anywhere else, but the point is I look around and it's like, don't tell me what I want to hear. Show me. Straight up just tell me, you know, 'It's going to be hard at first but if everybody helps and pulls together we can do it.'

He says he hasn't made up his mind who to vote for yet. He says he's so disgusted he might not vote for anybody this time. He's got better things to do like find a new job.

In Cleveland, I'm Mhari Saito, for Marketplace.

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