If you have been paying attention to the presidential race lately, you might feel like you've been caught in a time warp. Suddenly, the Democratic candidates in Ohio are both talking about NAFTA, the 14-year-old trade deal as if it's one of the most important issues in the campaign.

We have NPR's Adam Davidson to take a look at why NAFTA is still such a hot subject in Ohio.

ADAM DAVIDSON: Barack Obama wants to make something clear - when it comes to hating NAFTA, he's way out in front of Hillary Clinton.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): Senator Clinton, as part of this Clinton administration, supported NAFTA. In her book she called it one of the administration's successes.

DAVIDSON: The very suggestion that she might like NAFTA made Hillary Clinton furious.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; Presidential Candidate): This is wrong and every Democrat should be outraged. So shame on you, Barack Obama.

DAVIDSON: Wow. The two candidates seem to really hate NAFTA and they both seem to hate even more the idea that someone might get the impression that they don't hate NAFTA or that one of them hates NAFTA a bit less than the other. So when these two say NAFTA, what are they talking about? Cue the filmstrip.

(Soundbite of filmstrip)

Unidentified Man: NAFTA or the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994. It's also known as TLCAN in Mexico and ALENA in the French parts of Canada. NAFTA eliminated most tariffs or import taxes on goods moving from one of those countries to another. Most economists believed this has been good, overall, for the U.S. economy. But like all trade agreements, NAFTA has hurt some industries particularly in the Rust Belt states which brings us to present-day Ohio.

DAVIDSON: Are Obama and Clinton right? Has NAFTA hurt Ohio's economy?

Professor NED HILL (Economic Development, Cleveland State University): Oh, absolutely not. NAFTA is more political theater than an economic event.

DAVIDSON: That's Ned Hill, economic development professor at Cleveland State University. He says Ohio is suffering economically, unemployment is high.

Prof. HILL: But that is not due to NAFTA. That is because the failed strategy of three companies.

DAVIDSON: GM, Ford and Chrysler. U.S. automakers are suffering. Largely, Hill says, because they don't make cars people want. So their workers suffer which means an auto state like Ohio suffers. Hill says NAFTA has been one thing that has helped the state. Now, Ned Hill is a centrist Democrat. He supports NAFTA and free trade. What about the folks who hate NAFTA like Rob Scott, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, that's a pro-labor, anti-NAFTA think tank? As much as he doesn't like NAFTA, Scott says it's just not that important.

Mr. ROB SCOTT (Economist, Economic Policy Institute): More important was the formation of WTO in 1994 and the entry of China into WTO in 2001.

DAVIDSON: The WTO, the World Trade Organization is like a global NAFTA. It lowers trade barriers in most countries especially China. The U.S. trade deficit with China is more than three times greater than with Mexico or Canada. So if you think free trade hurts the US, China is a much bigger threat than NAFTA. If you think free trade helps, China is far more helpful which leaves some puzzling, why do Clinton and Obama talk about NAFTA so much and not about other things like China, Pierrette Talley, secretary treasurer of the AFL-CIO of Ohio thinks she knows the answer.

Ms. PIERRETTE TALLEY (Secretary-Treasurer, AFL-CIO): Workers know about NAFTA because we did a lot of education around the impact of NAFTA and what it would do when it was passing through legislation back in the '90s.

DAVIDSON: She says it was organized labors last huge nationwide campaign. And it cemented NAFTA as a big issue in union members' minds. And of course, anyone who wants to win the Ohio Democratic primary needs to win union votes. A candidate can try to explain that NAFTA isn't that important than focused on other issues or they can just blame the other side for not hating NAFTA quite enough.

Oh, by the way, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have pretty much exactly the same record on this. They both support the existence of NAFTA though they do both call for its reform along quite similar lines they weren't in Congress so they didn't vote for or against NAFTA back in 1994 but they have both voted in favor of most free trade deals they've had a chance to.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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