WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Two months ago, while official Washington was basking in the glow of the historic peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, President Clinton was huddled with three former presidents inside his family's quarters at the White House.
He had drawn together former presidents Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter and George Bush for an extraordinary endorsement the following day of an initiative all four considered as important to the United States as Mideast peace: The North American Free Trade Agreement.
Mr. Clinton had endorsed the pact during the 1992 campaign and reiterated his support for it publicly. But no one outside the White House, it seemed, believed he really cared.
"What do I have to do?" the president complained to an aide.
On the day of his joint news conference with the former presidents, however, those who were paying close attention saw that Mr. Clinton knew he was in a fight -- and that he intended to prevail.
In the East Room of the White House, he threw down the gauntlet:
"We will make our case as hard and as well as we can," he said. "And, though the fight might be difficult, I deeply believe we will win."
It would take a while for the outside world to catch on, but NAFTA was on its way to victory.
"That was the first real shot across the bow of the anti-NAFTA people," said a White House aide. "From that moment on, the president never wavered, never went off-message, never failed to say the tough things.
"And no one [in the White House] ever had to explain again why NAFTA was important."
NAFTA was a Republican idea, originally offered by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 campaign and painstakingly negotiated by President George Bush.
But it is clear in the aftermath of last night's 234-200 vote that only a Democratic president could have gotten it approved.
The trade deal was "dead on arrival" before his election last fall, Mr. Clinton said this week. Most of his party's representatives in Congress and the most powerful Democratic interest group, organized labor, opposed it.
Some of the president's own advisers, including George Stephanopoulos, his closest personal aide, urged him to find a way to abandon the agreement.
But even as many were calling NAFTA a lost cause, the apparatus was being constructed behind the scenes that would lead to victory.
Last summer, the president tapped William Daley, a well-connected Chicago Democrat to be his NAFTA "czar." White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty quickly put together a staff for him from a list of the best available administration talent to lead the lobbying effort.
All had communications or marketing backgrounds; most were veterans of the 1992 campaign.
Chosen to head the day-to-day operation was Rahm Emanuel, who'd been miscast as White House political director, but who, more than anyone, came to epitomize the well-organized guerrilla tactics that would put the White House over the top.
Every morning at 9:15, the 30 or so aides in the NAFTA "war-room" -- actually a suite of offices in a White House annex -- would go over names of members of Congress kept by White House lobbyist Susan Brophy. Every name was entered in a computer, along with a list of the members' reservations about NAFTA.
"We'd go over a name, and say, 'That guy is concerned about this issue -- let's have these three people call him,' " said Christopher Dorval, a member of the team.
An example of how this system worked involved Democratic Rep. Norman Y. Mineta of San Jose, Calif.
Mr. Mineta has strong ties to organized labor, but many of his district's successful high-tech companies told him flatly that NAFTA would enable them to increase exports to Mexico immediately.
He also has an almost family-like relationship to Santa Clara County's cut flower industry, an industry started by his fellow Japanese-Americans -- and one that would be threatened by unfettered competition from Mexico. Finally, he was concerned about human rights violations in Mexico.
So the "call sheets" went out from the White House. Former President Carter and Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, a fellow Californian, phoned with the same message: We share your worries about human rights in Mexico, but reformers in that country tell us that this treaty will strengthen, not weaken, their hand.
Then Mr. Clinton met Mr. Mineta in the Oval Office and promised to have his administration monitor the cut-flower industry. A follow-up call came from the president on Monday. An hour later, Mr. Mineta, his eyes brimming with tears, pronounced NAFTA the most gut-wrenching decision he's faced in Congress. Then he endorsed it.
Other members had less personal, but equally troublesome considerations to resolve.
The jobs question
Democratic Rep. L. F. Payne of Virginia believed NAFTA would create, not cost, jobs.
But with 45,000 textile and apparel workers in his district, he wanted to make sure his vote didn't cost them their jobs -- or him his seat in Congress.
He wanted stronger language in the agreement saying firms in Mexico can't import yarn from China, spin or weave it and then import it duty-free to the United States. He also canvassed 25 textile manufacturers in his district to make sure they weren't going to move to Mexico. Assured they weren't, he informed the White House in October that he was on board.
An aide in the NAFTA war room replied, "Great, what can we do for you?" By that afternoon, two African-American members of the Clinton Cabinet, Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy and Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown, had phoned black leaders in Mr. Payne's district, and Mr. Kantor had talked with editors at local newspapers, assuring them that NAFTA would not hurt southern Virginia. The president had signed a letter saying that Martinsville, Va., sounded like a fine site for a long-discussed textile research center.
White House Communications Director Mark Gearan estimates that Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore -- working the phones right up until the moment of last night's vote -- talked with more than 200 members of Congress.
His Cabinet made more than 900 phone calls.
Not all the calls were successful, but even opponents gave the White House credit for doggedness. At 11 one recent night, Mr. Clinton dialed Rep. Sam Gejdenson, a Connecticut Democrat, to see if there was any way he could spring his vote. There wasn't, but Mr. Gejdenson recalls thinking that NAFTA's opponents were in quite a fight.
Last Friday, the president called another NAFTA opponent, House Armed Services Chairman Ronald V. Dellums to see if a $3.6 billion aircraft carrier could be approved next year instead of the year after. It couldn't, and the president didn't say why he cared.
The reason appears to be that the aircraft carrier is being built in the Tidewater district of Virginia Democrat Norman Sisisky, then undecided on NAFTA.
In recent days, NAFTA opponents in Congress have denounced such wheeling and dealing, insisting that the goodies, whatever they are, will cost taxpayers dearly.
Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen insisted yesterday the pot sweeteners would not cost taxpayers, but in Mr. Daley and Mr. Emanuel's shop it was clear that no differentiation was made between soothing members feelings, offering protection in the legislation, granting political cover and dispensing out-and-out favors.
Some examples of the problems they were confronted with -- and their solutions:
* Freshman Rep. Maria Cantwell, a Washington state Democrat, goes to a town meeting in her district to find it overflowing with vocal, anti-NAFTA Perot supporters?
Call the DLC (the Democratic Leadership Council, a pro-NAFTA group formerly headed by Mr. Clinton), the White House ordered, and make sure that at her next town meeting in Seattle half those in attendance are NAFTA supporters. They were.
* Florida's delegation is worried that its citrus and tomato growers will be hurt by Mexican imports?
Pressure the Mexicans to alter the agreement, which they agreed to.
* New York Democratic Rep. Nita M. Lowey believes in free trade but hasn't heard a word of support in her district?
Organize 40 or 50 CEOs to go to Manhattan for a meeting -- and send Deputy Trade Ambassador Rufus Yerxa to tell them that NAFTA will allow them to compete in Mexico's vast and growing market.
Almost nothing, it seems, was left to chance.
Perhaps the best example: On Oct. 25, Mr. Emanuel, foreseeing the results of Canada's elections -- won by a party leery of NAFTA -- made sure the White House released details of the long-awaited health plan that day.
It didn't entirely obscure the Canadian election news, but it kept White House reporters busy on something other than negative stories about NAFTA's chances.
"That was Rahm's defining moment," said one admiring colleague. "He did that stuff for eight weeks."
The Perot factor
Every successful campaign needs some luck, however. And that came courtesy of Ross Perot.
Two weeks ago, believing they needed another boost, White House strategists agreed with a high-risk strategy: Have Mr. Gore debate Mr. Perot in the hopes that the Texan would self-destruct, taking NAFTA down with him.
The gambit worked.
"He doesn't like to be interrupted, so we practiced doing that," recalled Rep. Mike Synar, an Oklahoma Democrat chosen to play the role of Mr. Perot in the White House rehearsals.
"We wanted to get him ired pretty early."
As the debate began, Mr. Perot got plenty ired -- and did so very early.
In the NAFTA war room, the 15 staffers assigned to be fact-checkers in case Mr. Perot pulled out a damning new statistic about NAFTA, relaxed at their computer terminals. At home on Capitol Hill, Mr. Synar watched with glee.
"I was freakin' out," he said. "We never imagined he was that thin-skinned."
The flood of pro-NAFTA support began the next morning, including some defectors. Those against NAFTA had peaked a week too soon. It was all over but the counting of the votes.
THE DEALS THAT SAVED THE DAY
To put together last night's majority in the House for the North American Free Trade Agreement, President Clinton struck a series of deals with wavering lawmakers.
They ranged from federal contracts for small constituencies to sops for large states, from breaks for individual companies to help for entire industries.
The key to the administration's NAFTA success rested with four major concessions. They were:
A concession that prevents Mexico from flooding the U.S. market VTC with cheap sugar. Sugar producers feared that Mexico would substitute high fructose corn syrup for sugar as its main domestic sweetener, creating a sugar surplus for export to the United States.
U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor persuaded the Mexicans to include corn syrup in their sugar production totals to prevent that from happening. This influenced as many as 20 votes in the 17 sugar producing states.
CITRUS AND VEGETABLES
The prospect of a surge of cheap fruit and vegetables from Mexico flooding the U.S. market alarmed representatives from agricultural states, particularly Florida. They were not satisfied with the treaty's original arrangements to protect U.S. growers from any sudden surge of imports.
To get their support, the administration pressured Mexico to accept two new stratagems. The first would allow tariffs on Mexican citrus exports to the United States to be increased if the domestic price here fell below the average of the previous five years. The second introduced a more sophisticated system for quickly detecting and countering import surges of vegetables, particularly tomatoes. The changes may have won at least a half a dozen House members.
U.S. farmers in the northern tier states, Oklahoma, and Texas were angered by a surge of Canadian durum wheat into the United States following the creation of a bilateral free trade zone between the United States and Canada in 1989. The farmers accused the Canadian government of subsidizing the wheat, which is used for making pasta, and believed NAFTA would make the situation worse.
To overcome opposition from wheat state lawmakers, the Clinton administration this week threatened to put quotas on Canadian wheat unless the government changed its pricing policy. Another half dozen or more votes were swung behind the treaty.
Three companies in Iowa -- Maytag, Amana, and Frigidaire -- warned their congressmen that their market share was threatened by a surge of competing Mexican products under NAFTA.
The Mexicans agreed to open talks to accelerate the lowering of their tariffs against U.S. electrical appliances and open their market to Maytag and the others as soon as the agreement goes into effect next January. Two or three more votes joined the plus column.