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McCain Heads North to Talk Trade

Sen. John McCain ventures north of the border today, to give a speech on free trade before the Economic Club of Canada in Ottawa. Democrats are suggesting an ambassador’s involvement in organizing the event may violate the Hatch Act — which forbids diplomats from engaging in certain political activities. Meanwhile, the Canadian press is reporting that the visit is causing headaches for Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party, who have been criticized for being too close to the Republican Party. According to Toronto’s National Post, the McCain campaign had requested an audience with the PM, but CanWest News reports Harper will be in Saskatchewan. From the National Post:

It may the most sought-after ticket in Ottawa, but when Republican presidential nominee John McCain addresses a sold-out luncheon on Friday it will be hard to find a Conservative politician in the crowd…

The Prime Minister’s Office, concerned about the optics, also advised staff working for MPs to avoid the speech. Tickets for Mr. McCain’s speech sold out in an hour but, among the 380 guests, the federal Conservatives will be limited to those with official reasons to attend. David Emerson will be there as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Conservative MP Rob Merrifield will also go in his capacity as co-chair of the Canada-U.S. Interparliamentary Group.

The article goes on to suggest that the Tories are concerned about rehashing the controversy over what has come to be known as NAFTA-gate, when the PM’s chief of staff leaked that the Obama campaign had secretly told Canadian officials the Democratic candidate was not to be taken seriously on his anti-NAFTA stance. In an interview with Fortune, Obama appears to be softening his position on the free trade agreement.

[T]he presumptive Democratic nominee backed off his harshest attacks on the free trade agreement and indicated he didn’t want to unilaterally reopen negotiations on NAFTA.

"Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified," [Obama] conceded, after I reminded him that he had called NAFTA "devastating" and "a big mistake," despite nonpartisan studies concluding that the trade zone has had a mild, positive effect on the U.S. economy.

Does that mean his rhetoric was overheated and amplified? "Politicians are always guilty of that, and I don’t exempt myself," he answered.

Obama says he believes in "opening up a dialogue" with trading partners Canada and Mexico "and figuring to how we can make this work for all people."

McCain’s speech today will focus on how the United States can strengthen its relationship with its neighbor to the north. McCain, an adamant supporter of free trade, has been a sharp critic of Obama’s positions. However, McCain’s stance is risky, since free trade is a touchy issue in several Midwestern battleground states, like Michigan and Ohio, where manufacturing sectors have been hit hard by job losses to overseas competitors. From The Associated Press:

An AP-Yahoo News poll conducted mostly in April found that most Americans have a negative view of trade agreements.

Of those polled, 64 percent said that increasing trade between the United States and other countries has hurt the economy, while just 22 percent said it has helped.

Moreover, 54 percent opposed the federal government negotiating new agreements with other countries, as opposed to 43 percent who favored more agreements, though Republicans tended to be evenly split on the question.

Still, that hasn’t stopped McCain from penning a pro-free trade op-ed in this morning’s Detroit Free Press. The Obama campaign, meanwhile, has scheduled a conference calls with reporters today to rebuff McCain on the issue. The call will feature prominent Midwestern Democrats, including Gov. Ted Strickland and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Free trade is one more issue on which McCain must walk a tightrope between the a major segment of the GOP base — in this case big business — and working-class moderates.

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