AUSTIN, Texas — When Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama duel Tuesday night in a crucial debate in economically battered Ohio, both are certain to claim that they oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement.
It's a dubious claim, however. Obama touted the benefits of the trade deal with Canada and Mexico when he was running for his Senate seat, and if Clinton had reservations about NAFTA, she kept them to herself when her husband made it one of his presidency's top priorities.
The Democratic candidates spent Monday trading barbs about NAFTA, each painting the other as a fervent backer of an accord that many economists call a success and that some politicians and union leaders label a failure.
Clinton opened her Ohio campaign last Tuesday saying that, "I've long been a critic of the shortcomings of NAFTA." Obama followed with fliers accusing her of flip-flopping.
The passage of the trade deal in 1993 was one of Bill Clinton's biggest policy victories, and those who fought to pass it say Hillary Clinton certainly wasn't a vocal opponent — and probably wasn't an opponent at all during her husband's eight years in office.
Hillary Clinton "certainly was never opposed to it," recalled former Rep. Bill Frenzel, R-Minn., whom Bill Clinton recruited to help lobby for the agreement in 1993. "I guess whatever he was for, she was for."
James Jones, a veteran Democratic congressman from Oklahoma whom Bill Clinton tapped to be his ambassador to Mexico, helped lobby wavering Democrats to get NAFTA through Congress. He doesn't recall Hillary Clinton ever questioning NAFTA, either.
"I have always assumed she supported it," he said.
Marc Campos, a Democratic political consultant in Houston, worked for the government of Mexico during the NAFTA debate. The Mexican government coordinated its lobbying efforts with Washington, and Campos was tasked with rounding up Hispanic support for the treaty in the United States — an easy job.
"For the most part, Latino leaders throughout Texas supported NAFTA,'' Campos said. "At the time, (Hillary Clinton) was involved in all the health care stuff, so she wasn't a real player on it in the administration. But hell, she was married to the guy.''
In fact, Clinton barely mentions NAFTA in her 532-page memoir. When she does, it's usually in the context of how it affected her failed 1993-94 effort to overhaul health care. Major newspapers reported her frustration in 1993 that the campaign to pass NAFTA was knocking her initiative into the background.
Clinton's campaign spokesman, Phil Singer, points to a 2000 statement in New York in which she called NAFTA "flawed" and suggested that changes were needed in it as the earliest evidence he could find of her opposition.
Obama's claims, too, are open to question.
"I don't think NAFTA has been good for Americans, and I never have," he said Sunday in Ohio.
But according to a Decatur (Ill.) Herald & Review story in September 2004, Obama touted the benefits from U.S. exports under NAFTA during his Senate campaign. The Associated Press also reported at the time that Obama favored pursuing trade deals such as NAFTA.
The Illinois senator insisted Sunday in Ohio that while he doesn't oppose free trade, he has reservations about NAFTA.
"What the world should interpret is my consistent position, which is: I believe in trade," he said.
But it's hard to be for trade and against NAFTA, because that landmark regional trade deal served as a blueprint for future accords, creating rules for everything from how to label products to timetables for removing tariffs and other trade barriers.
"I think when Obama says that kind of stuff, it is political doubletalk," said David Rothkopf, who served as an undersecretary for international trade in the Commerce Department under President Clinton. "The reality is that NAFTA produced many benefits."
The U.S. Trade Representative's Office points to a nearly 200 percent growth in trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico from 1993 to 2006.
But both Clinton and Obama are fighting to win the Ohio primary by taking a page from the winning campaign of Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in 2006. He used NAFTA criticism in part to unseat Republican incumbent Mike DeWine.
"It really was a central point of that campaign," said Alexander Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "He tied it to the Rust Belt's problems and the failure of the Bush administration to do much about the economy."
The blame for Ohio's economic problems, however, goes beyond NAFTA.
"Youngstown, Ohio's problems have nothing to do with NAFTA. The real story in manufacturing isn't trade, it is technology," said Daniel Griswold, the director of trade policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.
"We're producing 40-50 percent more stuff than we did before NAFTA. We're just doing it with fewer workers. ... NAFTA has probably accelerated that trend to a higher level of manufacturing, but that's been one of the successes of the agreement, not one of the problems."
A 2003 study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office concluded that trade agreements such as NAFTA can have local impact but little effect on overall employment across the broader U.S. economy. Given the size of the U.S. economy, the study concluded, NAFTA has raised the sum of U.S. economic activity only slightly.
ON THE WEB
Read the Congressional Budget Office study on NAFTA's effects on trade and growth.
(Root, of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, reported from Austin; Lightman and Hall reported from Washington.)