By  on October 10, 2007

WASHINGTON — Free trade or protectionism?

The choice isn't quite as black-and-white as that in the race for the White House, but while the trade debate might be playing second fiddle to the Iraq War on the campaign trail, the issue of global commerce and the impact on American jobs and lifestyles will likely weigh heavily on voters thanks to a ballooning trade deficit, worries over the economy, a spate of recalled contaminated products from China and agitation on Capitol Hill to boost the value of China's currency. Further proof of the importance of trade and the economy to the race has come in the last two days. Democratic frontrunner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton laid out her first major economic blueprint for union leaders and voters in Iowa on Monday, while nine Republican candidates discussed trade during their debate Tuesday in Dearborn, Mich.

Clinton, who is facing pressure from rival Sen. Barack Obama on her trade record, said the North American Free Trade Agreement "is not working" and added that free trade pacts should be reassessed every five years, starting with NAFTA.

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Meanwhile, the Republican candidates made strong statements in support of pursuing free trade agreements in their televised debate Tuesday afternoon in the heart of the U.S. automotive industry, which has struggled with massive job losses due to foreign competition. But the candidates also expressed concern about China's undervalued currency, product safety issues and intellectual property violations, and called for tougher action against that nation.

Fred Thompson, a former Tennessee senator, criticized China for its spate of contaminated products and undervalued currency, but stressed the U.S. could not turn its back on free trade.

"I was one of the strictest advocates of imposing restrictions on the Chinese for their behavior of exporting dangerous materials to countries and tying some of our trade policies to what they did in that regard," said Thompson. "They still have not done enough...but in terms of turning our backs on free trade, that's not the direction to go."

Former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani expressed his support for the four pending trade deals with Peru, Colombia, Panama and South Korea that are being scrutinized by the Democratic-controlled Congress.

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