BLOOMFIELD, Iowa -- This town rimmed by the hills of southeast Iowa and wrapped around a wedding-cake-pretty courthouse is a long way from Mexico, half a world from China. But to hear the men at the Get To-Gather Room tell it, foreign competitors are a right down Highway 63, threatening to take the United Auto Worker jobs at the Deere & Co. plant in neighboring Ottumwa.
"The answer," said Don Smith, a retired Deere worker, to a ripple of nods, "is the tariff."
Across Iowa, trade is a bubbling political issue, asked about with regularity and great solemnity at campaign stops stretching from the Nebraska-to-Illinois border. Agriculture is king in Iowa, but union workers at construction sites and farm equipment plants are expected to account for one-third of the participants in the state's Democratic caucuses on Jan. 19.
Trade is a big issue in other early voting states as well -- particularly South Carolina with its textile mills and Michigan with its auto factories -- as the nation's manufacturing sector limps along with 2.7 million jobs lost in the last three years.
Representative Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri was supposed to have had support sewn up from voters angry about the perceived cost of free trade. He led the unsuccessful fight against the North American Free Trade Agreement in Congress in 1993, and vaulted to a resounding caucus win here in 1988 after airing a hard-line television ad in which he threatened to impose massive tariffs on South Korean cars if that country did not lower barriers to US vehicles.
But in the tumble of politics, the man threatening Gephardt's lead in Iowa is the candidate who sang the praises of NAFTA not so long ago. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean has leapt to the top of polls with a message that inverts his previous trade stance.
On the stump, Dean said that he supported NAFTA in the 1990s because it was good for his Canada-bordering state. But now, he said, he believes that the trade agreement should be rewritten so that countries that trade with the United States abide by uniform labor, safety, and environmental standards.
"Trade is a good thing," Dean told a crowd in Sidney, Iowa. "But there are reasons to put up tariff barriers, which is we know that other countries cheat. . . . What I want is the same rules in Mexico as we have in the United States."
Some economists say Dean's policy amounts to an antitrade message wrapped in trade-friendly language. "It's disguised protectionism," said Raymond Riezman, professor of economics at the University of Iowa.
Gephardt, who advocates an international minimum wage, dismissed Dean's idea of matching labor, safety, environmental standards, saying many countries have such laws on the books and don't enforce them. "I don't know that he understood the details of what he was saying," said Erik Smith, Gephardt's spokesman. "Or if he does, he is demagoguing."
Dean spokesman Jay Carson responded, "We would think that Congressman Gephardt would agree with trade goals that would raise labor standards across the globe and be good for American workers."
Other Democrats have joined Dean and Gephardt in the tough trade talk. In marked contrast to the pro-trade message Bill Clinton took to union groups in 1992, the leading Democrats are leveling harsh words at NAFTA at a time when the manufacturing economy remains sluggish, the trade deficit has soared, and unions are of growing importance to the party.
Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, who was not in Congress at the time of the NAFTA vote but voted to give China permanent favorable access to the US market, has said he opposes President Bush's effort to expand NAFTA into South America without stronger worker and environmental protections. Though he voted for NAFTA, Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts has a position similar to Edwards's.
Only one candidate, Representative Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, would repeal NAFTA, and only one, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, consistently offers strong support for free-trade policies. (This week, Lieberman and retired Army General Wesley K. Clark announced they would skip the Iowa caucuses altogether.)
Bush is a proponent of expanding NAFTA but earned protectionist stripes in some minds when he imposed tariffs on steel.
David Swain, a retired Deere worker and farmer from Brakesville, Iowa, who came to hear Dean speak, said Dean's message of changing other countries' standards seemed odd, coming from the man who has built a national reputation on opposing the unilateral war in Iraq. "We've got to take care of ourselves," Swain said. "But it's like Iraq. We go over there and tell them how to do their business -- and that's not working out."
Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at email@example.com.