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Trade Advocates Find Friendly Turf

With the free-trade agenda stalled on Capitol Hill, the Consumer Electronics Association decided to hit the road and roll up in a campaign-style bus at the Republican National Convention on Tuesday. As part of the group’s effort to pass several free-trade agreements, CEA held a news conference overlooking St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center.

Last week, the tour stopped in Denver for Democrats’ nominating convention.

The campaign trail has not been any more hospitable than the halls of Congress for the pro-trade message, especially among Democrats, whose presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), has called for the U.S. to reopen existing trade deals such as the North American Free Trade Agreement.

“A great nation does not fear trade,” Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the electronics association, told the small crowd assembled on a windy, overcast afternoon in front of the Minnesota Historical Society. “American workers can compete.”

Other speakers included Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Rhett Dawson, president of the Information Technology Industry Council.

All called on the Democratic-controlled Congress to bring a trade agreement with Colombia to the House floor for a vote before the end of the 110th Congress.

Dreier took a partisan tone in his support for the Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), as the one candidate who will vigorously support more free-trade agreements.

Dreier called it “a crime” that the Colombia agreement had not yet seen a vote. “We all know full well it is up to the Speaker to bring it to a vote,” he said, referencing California Democrat Nancy Pelosi. “I’m in political mode.”

But Dreier added that trade should be depoliticized.

“The issue of trade has become tragically partisan,” he said. “I wish very much that the candidates on the Democratic side would have embraced Bill Clinton’s view on trade.” While president, Clinton worked for the passage of NAFTA.

In addition to the Colombia free-trade agreement, Shapiro said his group is on the road lobbying for passage of pacts with Panama and South Korea. All three of those agreements have already been negotiated by the Bush administration but have not won approval by Congress.

“Together we will send a clear message — America wins with trade,” Shapiro said.

Despite the rhetoric, particularly among Democratic candidates on the campaign trail in such states as Ohio that have been hit hard with plant closures, Gutierrez said free trade is responsible for much of the growth in an otherwise ailing economy.

“This is a time when trade is making a big difference in our economy,” Gutierrez said. “Instead of standing still, we should be doing more free-trade agreements.”

He said the Bush administration has negotiated 11 free-trade agreements in its nearly eight years and that those pacts have added a $21 billion surplus to the economy. “This is a great cause,” he said.

Dawson, who is attending the convention not only as an advocate for the technology industry but also as a delegate from the District of Columbia, said U.S. tech companies will lose their edge in the world if Congress applies the brakes on the free-trade agenda.

“If we don’t lead on trade, … we’re going to be set back in our ability to lead” on technology, he said.

The CEA group also released recent polling data to bolster its lobbying argument. It said that 58 percent of those polled consider trade a plus because it has lowered the costs of food, electronics and clothing. The poll also found that 84 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 said they had personally benefited from trade. The poll was conducted by Zogby International.

As for the bus tour, CEA adviser Kenneth Nahigian of Nahigian Strategies said it swung through 28 states, including New York, Florida, Texas, Washington and Utah. After its time in St. Paul, the bus will head to Illinois, Tennessee and other points on the map.

The bus runs primarily on vegetable oil and fat used to deep-fry French fries and doughnuts. Depending on where the bus is, it has collected fuel from various restaurant sources. “One day it smells like Krispy Kreme,” Nahigian said.