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Gore, Perot to Debate NAFTA As Critical House Vote Nears

By Susan Page


High Noon at the Larry King Corral.

Actually, the televised debate between Vice President Al Gore and Texas billionaire Ross Perot begins at 9 p.m. EST Tuesday, a 90-minute confrontation over the North American Free Trade Agreement that already has taken on the swaggering air of two gunslingers intent on shooting it out.

Can the sometimes wooden author of "Earth in the Balance" loosen up and make real to average workers the arguments on behalf of the free-trade agreement?

Can the explosive one-time independent presidential candidate who has made "giant sucking sound" part of the political lexicon convince skeptics that he knows his facts?

"It's a sound-bite war," said David Beckwith, a former top aide to Gore's last debating opponent, then-Vice President Dan Quayle. And Gore, he warned, "is not a natural showman."

Former Democratic National Chairman John White was worried about that. "He's very intelligent," he said of Gore, "but he comes across a little slow."

But substance counts, too, said Diana Carlin, editor of a forthcoming study of the 1992 presidential debates -- which included Perot. "People liked his plain-spokenness, but they also began wondering how much he knew about the details," the University of Kansas professor recalled. "When it comes right down to it, the question may be, `Where's the proof?'"

Both sides predict a free-wheeling exchange with one of the the nation's leading talk-show hosts acting as moderator on CNN's "Larry King Live." With the men sitting at the curved desk opposite King, the format will include call-in questions from viewers -- and neither side will be allowed to station a representative in the control room.

Who will be watching?

Not the 40 percent of the country that doesn't receive CNN -- and perhaps not much of the 60 percent that does. The debate will be opposite the top-ranked "Roseanne" on ABC, the movie "Die Hard 2" on CBS and an "Unsolved Mysteries" special on NBC as the networks roll out their hottest shows for the ratings period known as sweeps month.

But for the White House, the target audience is small and select: the 36 House Democrats who have not yet pledged allegiance for or against the trade pact. The administration needs about 30 of those votes to pass the treaty, with the House vote scheduled for next week. If the House approves it, the treaty is expected to have an easier time in the Senate.

So Gore spent Monday "buffing up on NAFTA," White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said, with an eye to avoiding complicated detail.

"I think the vice president intends to talk about it in language that is relevant to people, that will help them understand how it's going to affect their lives," she said. Democratic allies on Capitol Hill also were calling the White House with suggested one-liners.

For his part, Perot has been polishing quotable anti-NAFTA lines at a series of rallies sponsored by his United We Stand organization. His key argument centers on jobs, asserting in an anti-NAFTA book he co-authored that the treaty would put 5.9 million U.S. jobs at risk. At his latest rally Sunday in Tampa, Fla., he upped that number geometrically, to 85 million -- more than two-thirds of the 120 million Americans who currently hold jobs.

The administration says NAFTA will mean a net increase of 200,000 jobs.

Aides said the vice president was viewing with interest Perot's last appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press," where he became short-tempered when pushed to provide details about his deficit arguments.

They said Gore also may press Perot about efforts by a family business to establish a free-trade zone at an industrial airport outside Fort Worth, Texas.

"This is a case of the facts vs. fear," Myers declared Monday.

Listen for that line Tuesday night, too.