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Campaign to Sell Free Trade Pact Gets Off to Limp Start : Commerce: President Clinton travels to New Orleans and appears in a dank warehouse. Perot lashes back at former President Carter on TV.


WASHINGTON — From a dank warehouse in New Orleans to a stuffy committee room on Capitol Hill, President Clinton's campaign to sell a dubious public on the benefits of free trade with Mexico and Canada got off to a limp start Wednesday.

Clinton flew to New Orleans to use container ships plying the Mississippi River as a photogenic backdrop for his pitch that ratification of the North America Free Trade Agreement would mean more exports.

In Washington, the Administration dispatched a high-powered sales team of Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen and U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor to promote the trade pact before the Senate Finance Committee, an important first stop in gaining Senate acceptance of the agreement.

But a Louisiana downpour forced Clinton to retreat to a leaky warehouse, where he visited with a half-dozen executives and employees whose firms would benefit from the trade pact, while the Cabinet officials encountered a decidedly mixed reception in the Finance Committee hearing.

A day after the President signed supplemental agreements to the trade pact intended to protect workers and the environment, representatives of six environmental groups touted the agreement's anti-pollution provisions. But several senators, including Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), called attention to other environmental groups that oppose the pact, among them the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace.

In an NBC television studio, meanwhile, Ross Perot lashed back at Jimmy Carter and the former President's pointed criticism of Perot's crusade against the pact. "He's scared to death, and I thank him for the promotion," Perot said of Carter. "He cannot have read NAFTA."

Carter, at the White House Tuesday when the supplemental agreements were signed, said of Perot: "Unfortunately, in our country now we have a demagogue who has unlimited financial resources and who is extremely careless with the truth, who is preying on the fears and the uncertainties of the American public."

Clinton was asked whether he was losing the public relations battle to Perot.

"No," he said. Then he snapped at reporters: "It's not about me and him. It's about the American people and their future. I think the American people will win on this."

Clinton has come under criticism from supporters of the trade agreement for what they have perceived as his half-hearted sales job on the treaty and for letting a powerful coalition of opponents dominate the debate. He assured supporters Wednesday that he was ready to fight for the trade agreement, which was written and negotiated by the George Bush Administration.

The agreement, if approved by the House and Senate, would eliminate tariffs and other barriers to trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico over the next 15 years.

A new national poll by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News demonstrates the depth of public skepticism that Clinton must overcome: 36% of those surveyed oppose the agreement, 25% favor it, and 34% said they did not know enough about it to have an opinion.

A Los Angeles Times Poll, conducted Sept. 10 through 13, showed the public in California split, too. The survey of 1,162 adults statewide showed that 29% back the pact, 32% oppose it and 39% say they are undecided or have heard too little about it to have an opinion. The figures are virtually identical to those found a year ago.

The poll indicated few pockets of wide approval or disapproval across the demographic and political spectrum. Registered Democrats tilt against it 34% to 26%; Republicans by 37% to 27%. California's Latino population backs it, 34% to 23%. Union members oppose it, 36% to 25%.

Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas), who accompanied Clinton to New Orleans, said the President had assured him that he plans a major effort to build support for the accord.

As part of that campaign, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt was dispatched to California and met Wednesday with business leaders in the Los Angeles area, asking for their help in touting the economic benefits of the treaty.

In his speech, Clinton tried to address the fear of many American workers that the pact will cost hundreds of thousands of jobs while providing benefits only for large employers who can profit from moving their plants to Mexico.

He said that, if the nation does not welcome change, it will be left behind.

"I'm telling you, folks, we cannot afford to look inward," Clinton said. Calling on the nation to embrace expanded trade, he said that "we can . . . win with it to create more jobs, more incomes and more opportunity."

Broder reported from New Orleans and Gerstenzang reported from Washington.

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