WASHINGTON -- On the eve of the administration's face-off with Ross Perot in its last-ditch effort to rescue the North American Free Trade Agreement, President Clinton took on another NAFTA opponent yesterday, attacking labor unions for using "roughshod, muscle-bound tactics" to try to defeat the trade pact.
In an hour-long, Oval Office interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday morning, Mr. Clinton conceded he is about 30 votes short of the majority needed to pass the trade legislation in the House, which will cast its decision Nov. 17.
"I think we'll make it, however," he added.
The House vote is the crucial test on Capitol Hill. Senate approval is regarded as certain.
The president said Mr. Perot, scheduled to debate the issue with Vice President Al Gore tomorrow night on CNN's "Larry King Live," has "kept things stirred up" as a loud and ubiquitous anti-NAFTA voice.
But he added that, more than the feisty Texas billionaire, the major problem for the White House has been the "raw muscle, the sort of naked pressure" that labor forces have exerted on undecided House Democrats by threatening members with a loss of financial and political support if they vote for NAFTA.
He said business leaders who back the treaty have not been as intense or steadfast in making their case as "the vociferous organized opposition of the nation's unions."
Mr. Clinton tried to soften his remarks by saying that NAFTA is virtually the only issue that unions and he differ on.
But such a public hammering of unions is a highly unusual posture for a Democratic president who can generally count on labor as an ally. Yesterday's attack reflects the topsy-turvy nature of the NAFTA debate, in which nearly all Republicans are lining up behind the president, and key Democrats, including the House leadership, are opposing him.
The president's comments also represent the unconventional, some have said "desperate," measures the White House is using in the battle over the trade measure, which would lift all tariffs and trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada, creating the world's largest free trade zone.
At the top of that list of gambits is tomorrow night's duel between Mr. Gore and Mr. Perot, who has been traveling the country denouncing NAFTA and predicting a "giant sucking sound" of U.S. jobs heading south of the border should the trade agreement pass.
Some NAFTA supporters, such as Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, have questioned the wisdom of entering a debate with Mr. Perot, whose sound bites and homespun style have proved engaging to TV audiences.
But Mr. Clinton said yesterday he was confident the vice president would make a clear case for NAFTA.
"Ross Perot is a master of the one-liner and the emotional retort, but I believe that the vice president has an unusual command of the facts and a real commitment, a profound commitment to this issue," said the president, who argues that the trade pact will create, rather than lose, jobs for Americans.
With the White House needing to pull so many votes over to its side, the high-stakes prizefight reshuffles the NAFTA deck if nothing else, shining a spotlight on an issue that until now has had the attention of only a sliver of the U.S. public.
"It expands it beyond a rather arcane and narrow debate about trade and into a political slugfest," said Democratic strategist Mark Mellman. The White House is banking on this 11th-hour media blitz to move public sentiment, and thus congressional votes, to its side, saying that the more people know about NAFTA the more they support it.
But a recent survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press suggests otherwise, with those who follow the fate of NAFTA "very closely" opposed to the agreement, 46 percent to 36 percent, and those who follow the issue only "fairly closely" favoring the pact 46 percent to 30 percent.
Calling the NAFTA battle a "purely inside-the-Beltway" fight, GOP strategist Ed Rollins, who worked briefly on Mr. Perot's presidential campaign last year, called the Gore-Perot match "about the stupidest thing I have ever heard of in this town."
The administration's strategy, according to senior officials, involves making Mr. Perot the personification of anti-NAFTA sentiment. If that succeeds, some Democrats may be less likely to vote against NAFTA and be seen as a Perot enthusiast, the officials said.
"He's held in high esteem among the population. He's held in low esteem among members of Congress," said Georgetown University political scientist Stephen Wayne, who believes the debate is a reasonable idea for the White House.
Mr. Wayne believes Mr. Perot's folksy, emotional style may win out over Mr. Gore's straight policy approach in the short-term, but not as the week wears on and the debate -- and the press -- turns to an examination of the facts.
Still, one anti-NAFTA congressional aide said he doesn't anticipate the debate making much of an impact at all and, likewise, doesn't believe feelings about Mr. Perot on Capitol Hill will have any bearing on the way a member of Congress votes.
"If that's your strategy," said the aide, "that's a 'Hail Mary.' "