- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2008

PITTSBURGH — Sen. Barack Obama’s purported back-channel assurances to Canada about NAFTA could hurt his campaign for union voters during the next Democratic primary, a top Pennsylvania union boss said.

“It played well in Ohio and I assume it is going to play well here in Pennsylvania,” said Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President William M. George, a Democratic Party superdelegate who has not announced his support for a presidential candidate.

He said trade deals, especially those with China, will be major concerns for voters in the April 22 primary.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York yesterday told supporters in Harrisburg, the state capital, that the Obama campaign’s contacts with Canada about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were part of a pattern of double talk from her rival from Illinois.

“In Ohio we just finished a campaign talking about NAFTA and trade,” she said. “My opponent said one thing in Ohio and then his top economic adviser told the Canadian government, ‘Don’t worry what he says. That’s just politics.’ ”

Mrs. Clinton said Mr. Obama also changed his position on the Iraq war, railing against it while campaigning for the Senate but voting to fund it once elected.

The Obama campaign responded that Mrs. Clinton’s renewed attack on trade proves “she is willing to do anything to win this election.”

“Senator Clinton today unleashed a kitchen sink of distorted and discredited attacks she knows aren’t true,” Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said.

When Mrs. Clinton started her presidential campaign, he said, she reversed her support for NAFTA, which was ratified while her husband, Bill Clinton, was in the White House.

Days before the March 4 primaries in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont, the Obama campaign was hit with reports that a top adviser told Canadian officials to disregard the candidate’s promise to rewrite NAFTA.

“The sneaky memos and conversations with friends in Canada … gave an impression that [Mr. Obama] didn’t mean what he said,” Mr. George said.

Although it damaged Mr. Obama’s campaign in Ohio and Texas, he said, the issue was “not a big thing with me.”

He said China and Mexico, not Canada, are the chief sources of Pennsylvanians’ misgivings about trade deals.

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama both pledge to renegotiate NAFTA, which unions blame for widespread job losses in the United States.

Mrs. Clinton won all of the March 4 contests except Vermont. The fallout from the Canada flap resonated the most in Ohio, which, like Pennsylvania, has a large number of union voters and is struggling with the loss of an industrial economy.

Both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama have agreed to speak at the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO’s biennial convention in Philadelphia April 1 to 3.

“Trade is becoming a bigger and bigger issue, more now than it ever has been,” said Pittsburgh City Council member Jim Motznik, a Democrat who represents a blue-collar district in the city’s South Hills neighborhood.

He expects voters to start paying more attention to the NAFTA issue. “Bringing that up and talking about it, you would generate interest, obviously, because of the job losses in the state,” said Mr. Motznik, who backs Mrs. Clinton.

Although the Obama campaign denied a secret meeting, the Canadian Consulate substantiated talks with Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee and recounted his assurances on NAFTA.

Obama campaign officials said they denied the meeting because they didn’t know about it. Nevertheless, they said, Mr. Goolsbee disagreed with the Canadians’ interpretation of his remarks, insisting that Mr. Goolsbee repeated what Mr. Obama had promised on the stump: that he wants to renegotiate parts of the pact rather than scrap it outright.

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