WASHINGTON -- There he is, in all his gesticulating, double-breasted splendor, touting his product on national television. But this time Lee A. Iacocca isn't selling cars. The former Chrysler Corp. chairman is talking plain and straight into the camera to try to convince Americans that they should buy the promises of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"Let's not twist the facts," Mr. Iacocca declares in a 60-second ad to be shown in many U.S. cities beginning Sunday. "NAFTA had nothing to do with the jobs we've lost in the past to Japan or Taiwan or Timbuktu."
And so it continues, a minute of America's most famous living automobile executive extolling the controversial trade pact with Mexico and Canada.
Yet anyone who wanted the commercial to be the start of a television duel between Mr. Iacocca and an equally famous American businessman will have to wait. Ross Perot, Texas billionaire and ardent NAFTA opponent, has already filmed his commercials but isn't ready to reveal or use them.
"Our agenda is not driven by Mr. Iacocca, and we're going to stick to it," said Sharon Holman, a Perot spokeswoman.
Mr. Perot was traveling and had no comment on the Iacocca ad, she said.
The Iacocca spot is the centerpiece of a renewed advertising campaign from NAFTA's proponents, led by a group called USA NAFTA.
The coalition of 2,700 corporations and agriculture interests started the two-ad blitz yesterday with updated versions of an old ad featuring five U.S. presidents, from Gerald Ford to Bill Clinton, endorsing the agreement.
The Iacocca ad opens Sunday in major markets, including areas where members of Congress have not yet decided how to vote on the treaty. Cities include Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, Dallas, Atlanta and Boston. The ads will run nationally on CNN but not the major entertainment networks.
The cost is secret, but ad experts estimate it will be between $500,000 and $1 million -- a fraction of the more than $25 million that the Mexican government and other NAFTA supporters have spent promoting and lobbying the pact.
Mr. Iacocca (or his writers) managed a few folksy lines that may remind viewers of the days when he was plugging cars instead of treaties:
"It's a no-brainer," he asserts of NAFTA at one point. At another, he calls American machine tools, computers, cars and trucks "all the good stuff."
The commercial's opening line is classic Iacocca: "Hey," he exclaims to viewers, "nobody has to tell me -- I know -- America has lost a lot of jobs."
NAFTA opponents, including organized labor and a group called the Citizens Trade Campaign, are running their own ads. One radio spot features clinking glasses to represent the sound of big-money lobbyists pushing for the pact in Washington.
Another, from the AFL-CIO, features a crate of auto parts bound for Mexico and warns of the potential loss of 500,000 American jobs.