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White House Attacks Perot's NAFTA Stand as Political Ploy

By David Lauter
Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON

The Clinton administration leveled one of its sharpest attacks against Ross Perot on Monday, charging that the billionaire industrialist's opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement is largely motivated by politics, including a desire to raise money for his United We Stand, America, Inc. movement.

"It's probably a good issue to run with, so he's running with it," Richard Daley, the administration's chief NAFTA strategist, told reporters. Perot is "a good politician. I wouldn't say he's solely motivated by that, but it's a major concern."

Daley claimed that Perot's political organization, United We Stand, America, was using the issue to raise money and to encourage membership. "Every time I've seen him, he's pushing the 800 numbers. That usually indicates something," Daley said.

He also suggested that Perot had changed his position on the issue and was less opposed to NAFTA last year. White House officials, however, were unable to substantiate that claim. Perot's emphasis on NAFTA has clearly intensified -- the issue did not figure prominently in the early stages of his presidential bid last year. And at least one former senior Perot adviser has suggested that his greater emphasis on the issue now is politically motivated.

Told of Daley's comments, Perot spokeswoman Sharon Holman called them "tacky" and said: "I think it becomes very clear that they can't defend the NAFTA agreement on the facts, so therefore they try to divert attention to a personal sort of analysis of what they think Mr. Perot's real motivations are.

"I would urge everyone to get back to debating the merits of the agreement."

That wish seems unlikely to be fulfilled. Increasingly, political figures who once saw Perot as invulnerable believe he has overexposed himself on the NAFTA issue and have begun firing back at him.

The bulk of Americans "see trade still as a foreign policy issue, not as an economic issue," said Clinton pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. Because of that, many Americans are inclined to give the president the benefit of the doubt on such an issue and are uncomfortable with Perot's harsh rhetoric, Greenberg asserted.

Moreover, said another White House aide, the breadth of Perot's charges that, for example, NAFTA would, by itself, "destroy" the American middle class or that it is a corrupt deal worked out by Washington insiders without regard to the national interest, have begun to revive questions among some Americans about Perot's bent toward conspiratorial thinking.

Those perceptions have made formerly wary politicians worry less about attacking Perot. Last week, for example, former President Carter attacked Perot, although not by name, as a "demagogue." And Sen. Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, ridiculed Perot's oft-repeated warning of a "giant sucking sound" as jobs move to Mexico.

"The sucking noise from Ross Perot's corner, I think, is from some extraterrestrial vehicle pulling his brains from his body," said Simpson, who is known for his caustic comments.

The White House is continuing efforts to line up Lee A. Iacocca, the former Chrysler Corp. chairman, as a possible counterweight to Perot in the NAFTA debate. Strategists believe Iacocca, with his blunt, America-first image, would appeal to many of the same voters Perot has attracted. White House officials have been in contact with Iacocca and his aides but have not yet worked out a specific arrangement with him, White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers said.

There is no doubt about the potency of Perot's opposition to NAFTA so far. Administration officials concede that Perot dominated the debate on trade last month while the White House was still getting its pro-NAFTA campaign organized. As a result, Daley acknowledged, Clinton and his aides are behind in the scramble to win votes for the agreement.

"We've finally started to have a push back on the issue of jobs," Daley said. Perot "got control of it" in August, causing a "hemorrhage" of support as members of Congress faced a bombardment of opposition to the pact from their constituents.

The pro-NAFTA effort may suffer another blow Tuesday, however, when House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., is expected to announce opposition to the agreement.