Democrats Struggle With Free Trade Issue

Democrats endorsing free trade risk alienating union voters. But if they renounce it, opponents may label them a protectionist. Presidential candidates tried to address the issue without tripping over it.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And in this country, with more jobs heading off shore, Democrats are struggling to sell voters on free trade. For our Wednesday focus on the workplace we're going to start at a union forum yesterday. That's where several presidential candidates tried to address the sticky issue without tripping themselves up.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: For Democrats, the calculus runs like this. Endorse free trade and you risk alienating union voters; renounce it and opponents can label you a protectionist know-nothing. At yesterday's forum by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, two of the leading presidential candidates tried to avoid both traps. Senator Hillary Clinton was forced to address a trade agreement that her husband championed as president.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): I think that like anything NAFTA had some positives, but unfortunately had a lot of downside. We see that especially in the loss of jobs going south to Mexico and then beyond.

LANGFITT: Then Senator Clinton changed the subject. She pointed out companies are also sending jobs to Canada because of lower health care costs.

Sen. CLINTON: If we don't get our health care costs under control, we're going to continue to lose jobs.

LANGFITT: Senator Barack Obama called for tougher trade agreements, but struck a warmer tone on globalization.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I believe in trade. I think trade can grow our economy and improve the lives of ordinary people.

LANGFITT: Running third in the polls, former Senator John Edwards took perhaps the toughest stance among the top candidates, saying NAFTA must be revised.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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