YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Standing before a nearly shuttered factory pocked with broken windows in a city devastated by the erosion of its industrial base, John McCain on Tuesday urged Americans to reject the "siren song of protectionism" and embrace free trade.
He used his own recent political fortunes — a dramatic fade followed by an unexpected comeback to secure the Republican presidential nomination — to illustrate that depressed Rust Belt cities such as Youngstown can rebound.
"A person learns along the way that if you hold on — if you don't quit no matter what the odds — sometimes life will surprise you," McCain said in a speech at Youngstown State University after meeting the five remaining workers at Fabart, a steel-fabricating factory that had more than 100 employees a few years ago.
Continuing a weeklong tour of what he calls the "forgotten America," McCain called for increased use of community colleges to retrain workers and investment in alternative energy technologies to replace the manufacturing jobs that have gone overseas, in part because free trade agreements made it easier for companies to move where production is cheaper.
"The American Midwest is more than a Rust Belt, and its economy is more than the sum of past hardships," McCain said, even as he acknowledged that a comeback "won't be easy."
The hardships are all too real in Youngstown. The city has lost more than 40,000 jobs since its signature steel industry collapsed in the 1970s and '80s. Its population is less than half its peak of 170,000 in the 1950s. About 25 percent of those who remain live below the poverty line.
To preach the virtues of free trade in such a place is risky even for a candidate who prides himself on "straight talk."
McCain lost the Michigan Republican primary in part because he told workers there that their "jobs aren't coming back," a claim then mocked by the victor, Mitt Romney.
Sensing political opportunity as the economy teeters, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have sought to outdo each other in lambasting free trade agreements such as NAFTA, which they call a prime cause of job losses. That could be a winning argument in crucial states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania in the general election.
During a town-hall meeting in Youngstown, former local labor leader Jack O'Connell stood to denounce NAFTA as a "bad four letters."
McCain jokingly pointed out that NAFTA in fact is composed of five letters, though O'Connell seemed to be equating it to a "four-letter word," as in a curse word.
In response, McCain said again that those jobs were gone forever and he defended NAFTA as an overall plus for the U.S. economy, even as he conceded that wage discrepancies and product dumping have hurt U.S. workers.
"I've met too many people who've been displaced as a result of free trade to say, 'Aww, it's all been good for our economy, don't worry about it,' " McCain said. "But I think the adjustment is not to erect barriers and protectionism. I think the answer is to understand that free trade or not, we are in an information technology revolution. ... We've got to be part of that new economy rather than trying to cling to an old economy."
McCain told O'Connell that he understood his "answer is not good enough for you." O'Connell, however, thanked McCain for "your straight talk on NAFTA," and indicated that although he was a longtime Democrat, he'd vote for the Arizona senator.
The Democratic National Committee issued a statement about McCain's visit to Youngstown:
"It may be a photo op for John McCain but people in Youngstown and cities across America are really hurting from the Bush economy and are looking for real help," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said. "McCain's only plan is to continue Bush's failed economic policies but the American people are saying enough is enough."
McClatchy Newspapers 2008