YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio - As Sen. John Edwards energetically and emotionally talked trade and jobs before a packed crowd at the local Teamsters hall here the other day, a huge sign looked down on him and his audience.
It said: "Remember the shafta you got from NAFTA ... Remember the people who told you to vote for the man who gave it to you. Vote John Edwards."
The "people" weren't identified, but the message by local supporters seemed to refer to Sen. John Kerry, who voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, a key subject of the current debate between the two Democratic candidates in Tuesday's Ohio presidential primary.
While the issue is under discussion in most or all of the nine other states that will be voting on Super Tuesday, nowhere is NAFTA more pertinent than in Ohio. A recent Cleveland think tank report said 191,000 manufacturing jobs were lost between 1999 and 2003. Of these, it said, one in six could be traced directly to the impact of the free-trade policies.
Mr. Edwards repeatedly told crowds during a weekend visit to the state that he opposed the trade deal with Canada and Mexico at the time it was enacted. But Mr. Kerry has noted that the freshman North Carolinian was not in the Senate to vote on it then.
Both senators agree, however, that NAFTA needs basic amendment and that federal tax policies toward trade should be changed. Both oppose tax breaks to American corporations that move abroad and favor incentives to keep jobs at home.
In the complicated area of trade and tax policies, Mr. Edwards has his work cut out for him demonstrating major differences between himself and Mr. Kerry on NAFTA. Essentially, he relies on his background as the son of a small-town mill worker to make the central pitch of his whole campaign - that he understands the plight of workers better than the patrician Mr. Kerry and feels their pain more personally.
Speaking to a crowd of locked-out workers at a titanium manufacturing plant in nearby Niles, Mr. Edwards said: "This is not an academic exercise for me. I saw what happened in my hometown when the mill closed. ... These trade policies are killing your jobs. ... This is personal to me." It didn't seem to matter to him that that NAFTA was not directly involved in this particular lockout. He gave them the same pitch: "For me, it's not politics, it's personal."
The Kerry campaign here doesn't sound overly concerned about Mr. Kerry's decade-old vote for NAFTA. James Ruvolo, a former Ohio Democratic chairman now chairing the Massachusetts senator's Ohio campaign, says last week's endorsement of Mr. Kerry by the national AFL-CIO, among the most vociferous foes of NAFTA, "gives him a Teflon coating" on the issue.
Veteran Ohio political consultant Jerry Austin, a former national campaign manager for the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, says the Ohio labor vote is not easily deliverable by union leaders. He recalls that Big Labor endorsed Walter F. Mondale in 1988, but he lost the state primary to Gary Hart. Mr. Ruvolo observes, though, that Mr. Mondale was not seen as electable against Ronald Reagan, whereas Mr. Kerry is making a strong case that he can beat President Bush.
Mr. Austin also points out that two of the largest national unions backed former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in Iowa and a broad coalition of unions worked for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri there, and both were weak also-rans on caucus night. But with labor money and manpower now pouring in for Mr. Kerry, Mr. Edwards has a particularly high hill to climb here.
In any event, Mr. Edwards has seized upon the trade agreement, which is deeply unpopular in the industrial northeastern corner of Ohio, to draw a distinction that can win votes for him.
In the end, the NAFTA issue may not determine the outcome here. But Mr. Edwards is using it, along with his pitch that "it's not politics, it's personal," in pursuit of his first non-Southern primary victory.
Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.