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Perot Takes Early Lead in Nafta Race

By Ann Devroy
The Washington Post

WASHINGTON

It is as dull as dishwater for most Americans, those few who have even heard of it.

But Ross Perot, with a little help from Jay Leno, Larry King and other television and radio hosts, may make the North American Free Trade Agreement a household word by Labor Day week. If he has his way, the word will be mud.

The Clinton White House, mostly still vacationing and somewhat divided over the politics of NAFTA, begins waking up to the fall battle with a 20- to 30-vote deficit in the House. Perot, though, is suited up on the field.

This week his new book, "Save Your Job, Save Our Country. Why NAFTA Must be Stopped Now!" is hitting newsstands. It portrays the trade agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada as the "ultimate inside deal" secretly orchestrated by the U.S. and Mexican administrations and a cabal of foreign lobbyists to help "Big Business" with plants in Mexico at the expense of American workers.

Perot, whose previous books have been bestsellers, made the same case last week on a two-hour C-SPAN show and will appear Sept. 2 on the "Tonight Show" with Jay Leno; on the "Larry King Live" television show Sept. 7. He will be on King's radio show Sept. 9 and on lesser-known shows between now and then.

Hearings on NAFTA, which would phase out most tariffs and other trade barriers among the three countries, begin in Congress the week of Sept. 13. Both houses must approve the treaty by December on a simple majority under "fast-track" authority -- special rules that give the president 90 days to win approval on an up-or-down, no-amendment vote. Perot and other opponents argue the administration can start over and get a better deal.

The White House, also promoting President Clinton's health care proposal this fall, has just begun to organize for what the president and virtually all parties involved anticipate will be a fierce battle, although not a partisan one. The issue has a free-trade/fair-trade, economic populist divide, with divisions all over the map.

Republicans tend to support it more than Democrats, and the Democrats who oppose it are part of the party's core constituency, such as organized labor and some of the environmental groups. Some of Clinton's friends on health care will be his enemies on NAFTA.

But even Republicans have their divisions. This week, Empower America, an Republican conservative group co-headed by Jack Kemp and William J. Bennett, sent letters to Republican congressional leaders urging support for NAFTA as the only element of Clinton's agenda that will promote economic growth.

Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative commentator and 1992 Bush primary opponent, is holding a news conference Thursday to make the case against NAFTA as an agreement at odds with "traditional conservtive principles of limited government, national sovereignty and an aversion to massive new foreign aid programs."

William Daley, the Chicago lawyer chosen by Clinton to coordinate the campaign for NAFTA, arrived here this week for the first set of meetings with an interagency task force established to push the program through Congress. The White House is expected to hire a Republican, former Minnesota Rep. William Frenzel, to work the GOP side of the House, sources said.

Daley, who has strong ties to organized labor, has a primary task of getting more Democratic House members to sign up.