June 23, 2008 / 12:28 PM / in 9 years

McCain praises NAFTA on Canadian trip

<p>Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain laughs before delivering a speech to the Economic Club of Canada in Ottawa June 20, 2008.Chris Wattie</p>

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Republican John McCain defended the North American Free Trade Agreement in Canada on Friday during an unusual foreign trip as a U.S. presidential candidate to draw a contrast with Barack Obama, his Democratic rival in the November election.

McCain, an Arizona senator who has wrapped up his party's White House nomination, said the trip was not a political one and declined to mention Obama by name during remarks before a group of Canadian business leaders and policy makers.

But his comments clearly took aim at the Illinois senator for suggesting the United States could opt out of NAFTA if Canada and Mexico did not agree to revise the pact's labor and environmental provisions.

"Demanding unilateral changes and threatening to abrogate an agreement that has increased trade and prosperity is nothing more than retreating behind protectionist walls," McCain said.

"If I am elected president, have no doubt that America will honor its international commitments -- and we will expect the same of others."

Trade is one of several issues that has come to the forefront of the U.S. presidential campaign as Americans worry about the sluggish U.S. economy and rising fuel costs.

Obama appeared to soften his earlier remarks on NAFTA in an interview this week with Fortune magazine and in a Jacksonville news conference when he said the rhetoric during the campaign had gotten "overheated."

"I'm not a big believer in doing things unilaterally," Obama told Fortune.

He said in Jacksonville, "I believe in free trade. I think that all countries can prosper as a consequence of free trade." But Obama added that he also thought the United States could be a better negotiator on behalf of American workers and for environmental standards.

SUPPORT FOR ROBUST TRADE

Obama's suggestion that he wanted to renegotiate NAFTA caused concern in Canada. A meeting that Obama's top economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, had with a Canadian official spurred a controversy in March after a leaked memo suggested Goolsbee played down Obama's public opposition to NAFTA. The Obama campaign said the memo was inaccurate.

In Florida, Obama mentioned that he spoke by phone on June 9 with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"I've had an opportunity to talk to Prime Minister Harper," he said. "I believe that the United States has an enormous interest in maintaining robust trade relationships with Canada and Mexico and I expect those will continue under an Obama administration."

McCain declined to comment on Obama's remarks to Fortune at a news conference after his speech in Ottawa. He said his trip was organized and paid for by his presidential campaign because he felt it inappropriate for U.S. taxpayers to foot the bill when he was the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

"There aren't any electoral votes to be won up here in the middle of a presidential election," he said to laughter from the audience. "But there are many shared interests that require our attention."

Obama also questioned why McCain made his comments in Canada instead of Michigan or Ohio.

McCain called for Canada and the United States to more closely align their energy policies. Canada is a top U.S. energy supplier.

"We stand much to gain by harmonizing our energy policies, just as we have gained by cooperating in trade through NAFTA."

He repeated his desire to close the Guantanamo Bay prison facility and said he would forge a foreign policy as president that paid attention to allies' opinions.

"I intend as well to listen carefully when close allies offer their counsel," he said. "Even when they don't volunteer their advice, I'll ask for it and I'll seek it out."

Additional reporting by Randall Palmer and Caren Bohan, editing by Philip Barbara and Eric Walsh

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