March 12, 2008 / 12:07 AM / 10 years ago

McCain lashes Democrats for criticizing NAFTA

<p>Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-AZ) speaks at a campaign event at Swift Aviation at Phoenix International Airport March 10, 2008. REUTERS/Rick Scuteri</p>

ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate John McCain criticized his Democratic rivals on Tuesday for pledging to renegotiate a hemispheric trade treaty that Democrats blame for U.S. manufacturing job losses.

At a town-hall meeting in St. Louis, the Arizona senator also called for the Democratic-controlled U.S. Congress to approve a free-trade treaty with Colombia that is being stymied on Capitol Hill.

“On trade, I‘m a free trader,” McCain told employees at Savvis Internet company, a session dominated by questions about the ailing U.S. economy.

McCain, the likely Republican nominee to run in the November election, is spending the week hop-scotching across several states raising money for his cash-strapped campaign ahead of a trip to the Middle East and Europe next week.

McCain, going to Jerusalem, London and Paris as part of a congressional delegation, said he would talk to NATO allies about Afghanistan and the need to do a better job in fighting the return of the Taliban.

He said he would reaffirm relationships he has with leaders there but would not intervene in U.S. efforts to arrange peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

“I just don’t think it’s appropriate for me to do so. But I certainly will be brought up to date and made aware of the, frankly, deterioration of the situation,” he said.

In recent weeks, both Democratic rivals Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have increased their criticism of the North American Free Trade Agreement linking the U.S. economy with those of Canada and Mexico.

They pledged to pull the United States out of the NAFTA agreement if Mexico and Canada did not agree to renegotiate it. Critics blame NAFTA, China’s accession to the World Trade Organization and other trade agreements for many of the roughly 3 million manufacturing jobs the United States has lost since 2000.

“I do not believe in isolationism and protectionism,” McCain said. “We’ve got to stop this protectionist NAFTA-bashing.”

The Bush administration -- noting that U.S. manufacturing output and exports set records last year -- argues that increased worker productivity and advances in manufacturing technology account for many of the lost jobs.

U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab argues NAFTA had been good for all three countries and warned reopening it could backfire on the United States.

McCain said promoting green technologies would help the U.S. economy rebound from manufacturing job losses.

“The moral of the story is, my friends, is we’re not going back to the old manufacturing base of the economy,” he said.

(Editing by David Alexander and David Wiessler)

To read more about the U.S. political campaign, visit Reuters "Tales from the Trail: 2008" online at blogs.reuters.com/trail08/

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