WASHINGTON -- Buoyed by Vice President Al Gore's performance in his fractious debate with Ross Perot, President Clinton voiced growing confidence yesterday that the House of Representatives will approve the North American Free Trade Agreement next week.
"I honestly believe we are going to win it now, and that's not just political puff," Mr. Clinton said at a press conference yesterday.
With one week to go before the House votes on whether to eliminate most trade barriers among the United States, Canada and Mexico over the next 15 years, proponents and opponents of the controversial agreement were claiming new converts on Capitol Hill.
Four members of the House announced support for the treaty yesterday, but an equal number came out publicly against it. None of the decisions appeared to have been influenced by the Gore-Perot debate, though Mr. Gore's performance gave the pro-NAFTA forces a much-needed psychological boost.
"I doubt whether it changed much in any way, shape or form," said Rep. William F. Goodling, an undecided Pennsylvania Republican who found no cure for his sleepless nights wrestling with the issue. "It seems like not many people outside the Beltway were even watching."
A head-count by the New York Times showed 73 House members still undecided. The administration says it needs about 25 votes to push it over the 218 majority, while opponents claim they already have the votes to defeat the legislation.
The majority of the undecided members remained firmly on the fence, waiting to hear from their constituents during the five-day Veterans Day break before making their final decisions.
They are likely to run into a continuing barrage of grass-roots criticism from organized labor, which claims that the agreement could cost millions of U.S. jobs and is threatening to withhold support from any Democratic member of Congress who votes for it.
Usually, such trips home have an eroding effect on NAFTA support, said Rep. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, one of the chief Democratic proponents of NAFTA. But this time he and his troops are hopeful that the folks back home will be lobbying for the treaty.
"The next four days will be critical," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui, a California Democrat who leads the pro-NAFTA team with Mr. Richardson.
But Mr. Perot and other opponents of the agreement had not run out of steam. Mr. Perot remained as combative as ever at a news conference on Capitol Hill yesterday, claiming: "It's been a good day. We had a net gain of several votes."
Meanwhile, AFL-CIO Treasurer Tom Donahue yesterday presented two leading Democratic congressional opponents of
the agreement, Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt and Whip David Bonior, with the signatures of 1.8 million workers calling for NAFTA's defeat.
"These are the same people that members of Congress will hear from when they go back to their districts this weekend," Mr. Bonior said. "These are the people this debate is all about."
Mr. Bonior took pains yesterday to distance himself from Mr. Perot, noting he was arguing the case of organized labor -- probably the largest single force working against ratification of the trade agreement.
But the momentum yesterday was working in the administration's favor. Mr. Clinton joined Democratic and Republican leaders of the uphill drive to win approval of the trade agreement, seizing upon Mr. Gore's surprisingly good showing against Mr. Perot as a sign that the NAFTA vote can be won on its merits.
"The vice president showed that just stating the facts about NAFTA and showing our concern for the interest of working Americans can overcome the fears, the distortions that have been leveled against this agreement," the president said.
He argued again that the agreement would create more new jobs than it would cost and emphasized that approval would give him "enormous leverage" in international trade talks, particularly with the Asian leaders he will meet at an Asian Pacific Cooperation Conference in Seattle after the House vote.
It also would mean Mexican cooperation on immigration and drug problems, the president said.
"This means a lot to us," Mr. Clinton said. Defeat, he warned, would diminish his economic leadership in the world.
In a personal tribute to Mr. Gore, Mr. Clinton called the vice president as he was about to speak at the headquarters of a Denver corporation that will benefit from free trade with Mexico.
"You were great last night," he told the vice president. "It was really wonderful. I was really proud, not only of what you said, but how you said it."
Rep. David Drier, a California Republican, said that after the Gore-Perot debate many of his GOP colleagues who have already announced their opposition to NAFTA confided to him yesterday that "now they feel guilty" because Mr. Perot's case looked so weak against the vice president's arguments.
"The impact was really striking, especially on the Republican side," Mr. Drier said. "I was actually cheering Al Gore on. Who would have thunk it?"
"All the calls coming into my office today have been yes," said Rep. Jim McDermott, a Washington Democrat who remains undecided. He declared the debate a success in generating support in his district, though his own indecision remains.
Tuesday's NAFTA debate resulted in the largest audience ever for the "Larry King Live" show on CNN, the cable network said yesterday.
CNN said the debate between Ross Perot and Vice President Al Gore was seen in about 11.2 million homes, according to A. C. Nielsen's overnight ratings.
The rating for the debate was 18.1. The second highest rating for "Larry King Live," was an 11.5 on Jan. 20, 1991, at the start of the Persian Gulf war.