NAFTA fight night: Gore vs. Perot Larry King to provide debate venue

Clinton attacks claims of job losses

November 05, 1993|By Susan Baer and Carl M. Cannon | Susan Baer and Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau Staff writers Paul West and Karen Hosler contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- In a daring bid to overcome public suspicion of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the White House agreed yesterday to debate vociferous NAFTA critic Ross Perot before the Nov. 17 House vote on the controversial trade agreement.

After months of attacks by Mr. Perot -- who has been traveling the country denouncing the accord and challenging the administration to meet him face to face -- Vice President Al Gore called talk show host Larry King yesterday morning and expressed interest in debating the feisty Texas billionaire on Mr. King's CNN TV show, a spokesman for Mr. Gore said.

President Clinton, in Lexington, Ky., yesterday to speak to workers at a computer equipment plant about NAFTA, took aim at Mr. Perot and his claims that the agreement will cost millions of jobs.

"He's certainly done everything he could to cloud the atmosphere," Mr. Clinton said.

"The vice president has challenged him to a debate on Larry King. Let's see if he takes it."

Mr. Perot, who was on Capitol Hill yesterday, wasted no time greeting the White House offer with unabashed glee. The former presidential contender called the White House gambit "a desperate move" and promptly proposed three debates to coincide with rallies he has planned over the next week in Tampa, Detroit and Seattle.

"They've issued the challenge, and I've accepted it," Mr. Perot said. "I'll see you there. I look forward to it. The president can show up at one, two or three of them -- or he can stand back and watch Al."

A senior White House official said last night that that was unlikely, but added that the White House would consider more than one encounter and might agree to a debate before an audience in which Mr. Perot and the administration each distributed half the tickets. The first debate could come as early as Sunday night, if the arrangements can be made, he said.

The White House communications director, Mark Gearan, however, suggested that the White House wanted only one debate.

Mr. Clinton was a reluctant convert to NAFTA, which would remove trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada over the next 15 years, but in recent weeks the treaty has taken on a huge significance for his presidency.

The president hasn't been able to shake loose enough Democrats to ensure passage, with his own floor managers in the House conceding that he is at least 20 votes short. It wasn't clear whether debating Mr. Perot would help secure those votes, but Mr. Gearan said that the White House hoped some of the wavering members of Congress would watch the debate themselves.

"The important question is what's good for the country," Mr. Gore said last night. "NAFTA's good for the country, and a full discussion of the facts is good for the country."

Swaying the House

Mr. Gearan added that it was also the hope of White House strategists that Mr. Gore will help swing public opinion more strongly in NAFTA's favor so that House members feel they can support the president and not pay for it on Election Day.

Rep. Bill Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat leading the pro-NAFTA forces, acknowledges that the decision to debate Mr. Perot was made out of desperation. But there was little choice, given how far behind the administration is in rallying support for the agreement, he said.

"Maybe it's high risk, but at this stage, given the numbers, we have to roll dice," Mr. Richardson said.

The administration believes that Mr. Perot has already done as much damage as he can and that putting Mr. Gore up against Mr. Perot would rally Democrats to deny the Texan a victory on NAFTA, he said.

A White House official said that that the impetus to go on "Larry King Live," one of the favorites of both Mr. Perot and Mr. Clinton before, during and after the campaign, was heightened by the defeat Tuesday of highly visible Democratic candidates in New York, New Jersey and Virginia.

Some analysts believe the Republican victories in this week's elections will make Democrats more reluctant to vote for NAFTA or anything else that increases the risk of an anti-incumbent backlash.

"That's ludicrous, that's just a Washington story," Mr. Clinton said yesterday in Kentucky. "That's ridiculous."

Why not Clinton?

Asked why Mr. Gore instead of Mr. Clinton was chosen, this official said that the thinking at the White House was that having the president do it himself might confer too much stature on Mr. Perot.

"I think if Clinton had his way, it would be Clinton," the official said.

"That would have been the stupidest thing imaginable," said one prominent Democrat with close ties to Mr. Gore. "They are building Perot up enough as it is."

This Democrat said part of the White House strategy was to "personify opposition to NAFTA in the person of Perot," who received 19 percent of the vote in 1992, but who is considered suspect by many House members.

At the Lexmark plant in Kentucky, Mr. Clinton promised workers they have nothing to fear from NAFTA.

"Now, the people who are against this, what do they say? They say 'You don't want to have a trade agreement with Mexico because look at all the jobs that went to Mexico in the 1980s, because they had low wages and lax environmental enforcement, and all this will do is to make that happen everywhere in the country. It'll be a disaster.' "

Throughout his remarks, it was clear Mr. Perot was never far from the president's mind.

"That one fellow talks about 'the giant sucking sound.' Well, let me tell you something, folks: I know a little about this. I was the governor of a state that lost plants to Mexico. . . . I used to go stand at plants on the last day they were open and shake hands with people when they walked off the job for the last time. I know something about that, and I want you to understand this very clearly from somebody who's lived through this: This agreement will make that less likely, not more likely."

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