WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore vigorously defended the North American Free Trade Agreement against its most outspoken critic, Ross Perot, in a nationally televised debate last night punctuated by personal insults and bitter exchanges.
Mr. Gore accused Mr. Perot of preaching "the politics of negativism and fear" in his campaign to block House approval of the agreement next week. NAFTA would create the world's largest free trade zone by eliminating most trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada over the next 15 years.
It was not clear what impact, if any, the highly publicized encounter would have on the administration's efforts to round up the 25 or more votes it needs to assure approval of the trade deal.
A post-debate poll showed that viewers, by a 59-percent-to-32-percent margin, thought Mr. Gore did a better job. The survey of 350 debate watchers by CNN, USA Today and the Gallup organization had a 6-percentage-point margin of error.
One previously undecided congressman, Rep. Jim Bacchus, a Florida Democrat, announced his support immediately after the show ended, in a move engineered by the White House.
Near the close of the 90-minute debate, telecast on CNN's "Larry King Live" talk show, the vice president summed up the administration's case against Mr. Perot and other NAFTA
"This is a choice between the politics of fear and the politics of hope, between the past and the future, pessimism and optimism, the status quo, leaving things as they are, or moving forward into the future with confidence," said Mr. Gore.
"We are not a nation of quitters. We are not afraid to compete in the world marketplace. This is a fork in the road, and the world is watching."
The Texas multibillionaire, who was on the defensive for much of the program, responded repeatedly with personal attacks on Mr. Gore, at one point questioning whether the vice president would "recognize the truth if you saw it."
Perot aimed at emotions
While Mr. Gore offered a measured and deliberate lesson, complete with case studies and statistics, Mr. Perot went for the emotions with photos of Mexican industrial slums and an impoverished Mexican worker building a home out of shipping cartons.
Mr. Perot has gained considerable support from blue-collar U.S. workers who worry that the deal could cost them their jobs. Last night, he put forward many of the same lines he has used in the more than 90 rallies he has held around the country this year, many aimed specifically at torpedoing the trade pact.
"If you want to trade, you trade with people who make money. You don't trade with people who exploit their workers," said Mr. Perot, who ran third in last year's presidential election as an independent.
Mr. Perot called the agreement a bad deal, noting that the administration still did not have the votes to pass the agreement despite support from four previous presidents and all living former secretaries of state.
"This dog just doesn't hunt," he said.
With a look of barely disguised anger on his face, Mr. Perot threatened that House members who voted for the trade agreement would face the active opposition of his supporters at the polls next year.
"Our people are really angry about this. There is no way to stop them," he said. "They are not going to tolerate their jobs being shipped all over the world."
But one undecided member of Congress, Rep. Nita M. Lowey, a New York Democrat, said the debate did not resolve her dilemma. "There was nothing said in the debate I hadn't heard before," she said. "I didn't think Ross Perot made the case effectively tonight. Before the debate I said it would be a circus. It turns out Ross Perot was the clown."
The administration had made a high-risk gamble that Mr. Gore would come across as a spokesman for common sense, while Mr. Perot, whose popularity has been falling recently, would in some way self-destruct and take with him enough of the opposition to the agreement to assure its approval.
The stakes, as Mr. Clinton, admitted before the debate, were "very large indeed." But neither participant floored the other in what frequently deteriorated into petty point-scoring.
Mr. Gore drew attention to widely publicized predictions by Mr. Perot about the likelihood of high U.S. casualties in the Persian Gulf war and massive bank failures after the 1992 election, neither of which came true.
Clearly irritated, Mr. Perot said at one point: "I would like to finish a sentence just once before the program is over."
Mr. Gore repeatedly attempted to pin Mr. Perot down, probing his interest in the Alliance Airport in Fort Worth, Texas. (Mr. Perot and his son own land adjoining the airport.) Mr. Gore also sought to force the Texan to make a public disclosure of his financial backing of the anti-NAFTA campaign.
Waving a prospectus for the airport, located in a free trade zone, Mr. Gore charged that Mr. Perot stood to gain financially from the increased trade NAFTA would produce.
"Watch my lips," said Mr. Perot. "Jobs will be created in Texas. Texas is in the United States. The workers will be United States citizens. They will be paid United States wages. It is a job creator in the United States of America."
Mr. Perot said of his outspoken opposition to the partnership with Mexico: "Everything I am doing makes it next to impossible for my family ever to be able to do anything south of the border, and I could care less. I will put my country's interest in front of making money."
In one of the most acrimonious exchanges, Mr. Perot charged the vice president with "lying" after Mr. Gore said that "no one had lobbied Congress more than Mr. Perot," referring to an unsuccessful attempt by the Texan to win himself a tax break for his computer company during the 1970s.
"You are lying now. . . . What are you talking about?" Mr. Perot sputtered.
Changing the subject
When Mr. Gore asked him about his lobbying efforts with tax-writing members of Congress, Mr. Perot changed the subject.
Mr. Perot, who at one point had Mr. Gore peering over his shoulder to see the photographs and charts he produced, also held aloft a video tape with the alleged proof of babies being deformed by pollution.
"Livestock in this country and animals have a better life than good, decent hard-working Mexicans working for major U.S. companies," he said.
Pressed by Mr. Gore to explain how he would improve the U.S.-Mexican border environment without NAFTA, he replied he would simply prevent the polluters from selling their goods in the United States.
Using another of the sort of one-liners for which he is famous, Mr. Perot pointed to Mexico's low wages and said: "People who don't make anything can't buy anything."
Mr. Gore, well-armed with trade statistics, countered that as Mexican tariffs on U.S. goods had been reduced over the past five years a $5.7 billion U.S. trade deficit with Mexico had been turned into a $4.5 billion surplus last year.