NEWTON, Iowa (Reuters) - Mike and Susan St. Clair are both 61, they’ve both just lost jobs at Newton’s Maytag plant, and they fear American jobs are disappearing fast. But each supports a different Democrat for president.
“She likes Hillary, I‘m for Edwards,” said Mike St. Clair, referring to front-runner Hillary Clinton and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
While the Iraq war is often cited as the most pressing issue confronting candidates for the November 2008 presidential election, pocketbook concerns dominate in this central Iowa town of around 15,000, hit hard by the closure of a Maytag washing machine factory that had been there for a century, with the loss of hundreds of jobs.
At a Newton biofuels company, Clinton acknowledged the “heartbreaking” closure of the Maytag plant and pledged to bring a tougher trade policy to the White House.
“Trade is a positive for America but I don’t believe in giving away and getting nothing in return,” Clinton said in response to persistent questioning from James Ploeser, an audience member.
Ploeser, 26, wants to make trade the dominant issue of the January 3 Iowa caucus, the first of the state-by-state battles to choose the Democratic and Republican candidates who will face off in the presidential election on November 4, 2008.
While Clinton leads national polls by a wide margin over Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and third-place Edwards, the race is tighter in Iowa, where Edwards hopes his populist appeal will win over the state’s largely middle-class electorate.
“John Edwards is the first person to come out with a solid plan to fix unfair trade agreements, but there is still a lot of room for his position to improve,” Ploeser said. “I‘m still waiting it out before deciding my vote.”
Edwards, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004, has staked his candidacy on opposition to what he sees as unfair trade agreements -- a swipe at Clinton, whose husband was U.S. president when the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, and other big trade deals were ratified.
“These trade agreements have lost us millions of jobs and we had trade policy that is not beneficial to working, middle-class Americans ... It only benefited big multinational corporations,” Edwards said in an interview on Monday.
Political analysts said Edwards’ message may appeal to many voters who have seen real wages stagnate while prices for everything from fuel and food to health care and college tuition have risen.
“Edwards understands that this issue, the anti-NAFTA, anti-unfair trade, resonates with those who have less -- the other America, the less privileged America. And they can be mobilized to vote,” said Alexander Lamis, politics professor at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
William Galston of the Brookings Institution think tank said that while free trade is not to blame for many of America’s economic woes, it may be hard for Clinton to counter Edwards’ fair-trade message.
“The easy course right now is to go with the populist protectionist flow. I think that Senator Clinton is doing her best to keep her balance but the circumstances of public anxiety and public opinion are making that difficult for her,” said Galston, who served two years as a domestic policy adviser to former President Bill Clinton.
Nearly 60 percent of Americans believe trade is bad for the economy, according to an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll conducted in September.
His support for Edwards aside, laid-off worker Mike St. Clair said he was skeptical much would ever change whoever becomes the next president.
“The bottom line is money controls our country,” said St. Clair. “They can say we’re for the middle class, we’re for the little guy, but how much is changing? Not a hell of a lot from what I can see.”