DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - Democratic candidates running for president can expect to get a question about the perils of free trade at nearly every campaign stop. But Republicans aren’t escaping fears about globalization, either.
“Everything you pick up is made in China,” a voter told Republican Mitt Romney at a recent event here in Iowa’s capital. “We used to make cars, we used to make TVs.”
How, the questioner wanted to know, can America find a “secure place” in that kind of global marketplace?
Romney, a front-runner in the early presidential nominating state of Iowa, spent a minute telling the man what he wanted to hear before explaining why it couldn’t be done.
It’s tempting to “build a wall around this country and keep those foreign goods from coming in,” the former Massachusetts governor said. “That sounds good for a while but think about what happens down the road.”
Explaining the benefits of free trade has become a tough task for candidates ahead of the November 2008 presidential election, as rising fears about unsafe imports and a backlash against illegal immigrants make any mention of foreign goods or labor a flash point for voter anger.
Echoing the stand of most of his Republican colleagues, Romney told the concerned voter that fair trade conditions must be in place, before going on to chastise China for manipulating its currency to give itself a trade advantage.
Whether the question to candidates is about foreign-made goods, job losses overseas or illegal immigrants taking American jobs, prevailing sentiment against globalization has become a feature of the U.S. campaign trail.
While the Republican Party used to be a bastion of free-market believers -- and Democrats embraced free trade under former President Bill Clinton -- an October poll by the Wall Street Journal found even 59 percent of Republicans now believe foreign trade has been bad for the United States.
“Economic anxiety is evident in all kinds of polls today,” said John Murphy, vice president for international affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “What’s unfortunate is that international trade is unfairly blamed for parts of that anxiety where it shouldn’t be.”
While nearly 6 million jobs have been created, exports are near a record and manufacturing output has risen since Republican President George W. Bush took office in 2001, voters are far more likely to focus on the loss of 3.1 million manufacturing jobs and the soaring trade gap with China.
The U.S. trade deficit widened in October to $57.8 billion, and the deficit with China is on pace to surpass the record set last year, a government report showed on Wednesday.
Moreover, a summer of recalls of unsafe toys and food has long since eclipsed U.S. appreciation of the inexpensive clothing and electronics that fill American shops.
“Trade policy hasn’t worked in eyes of voters. It’s led to a lot of problems for ordinary Americans, and as a consequence they’re no longer willing to trust Republicans on trade,” said Peter Morici, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Business and former chief economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.
Independent Iowa voter Kay Baccam, 38, is still working through her doubts about trade -- but is leaning toward supporting a Democrat on January 3, when Iowa kicks off the state-by-state battle to choose the Republican and Democratic candidates for the election.
“I like (Republican) Fred Thompson but I‘m probably more towards Hillary Clinton now,” said Baccam at a speech by the Democratic former first lady who has been trying to balance tough talk on trade with her husband’s support of such agreements.
Baccam has worked on an assembly line at a spice plant for 15 years and said the recent closure of a nearby Maytag appliance plant is worrying.
“A lot of jobs they could keep in the U.S. to help people here. There’s a lot of unemployment,” she said. “Those workers have done that their whole life, what are they supposed to do now?”
Additional reporting by Doug Palmer in Washington; editing by Mohammad Zargham