Will Nafta's Big Brass Band Ever Get In Step?

Right about now, business backers of the North American Free Trade Agreement should have their lobbying machine in overdrive. Corporate America is united behind the pact, and its war chest is chock-full. But as the battle over creating the trade bloc intensifies, there are signs that Big Business' enemy isn't anti-NAFTA ringleader Ross Perot, but itself.

Understaffed, disorganized, and without a clue how to conduct a grass-roots campaign, the main business umbrella group, USA NAFTA, is still flailing about just weeks before a congressional vote on the pact. The group's TV advertising has been panned by political pros as uninspired. Corporate leaders who say they desperately want an agreement aren't willing to step into the ring against Perot. And the group squandered precious time convincing Lee A. Iacocca to act as spokesman and savior.

As a result, the message of NAFTA foes--that millions of factory jobs could be lost to Mexico--go unanswered, and the public's worries about the pact are growing. "NAFTA supporters can complain all they want that the figures are being distorted, but they're not getting their message across," says GOP pollster Ed Goeas. A mid-September Gallup Poll shows that some 41% of Americans now oppose the pact. That's up from about 33% in polls taken over the summer.

JERSEY WHIRL. USA NAFTA head Lawrence A. Bossidy, chief executive of AlliedSignal Inc., knows that corporate supporters need to put on a big push. "We need to get as many CEOs as we can involved out there with a broad-based message," he says. So what's Bossidy doing? He took the stage in Washington briefly to ballyhoo NAFTA's benefits on Sept. 14, as Clinton signed ancillary agreements. But Bossidy plans no more public appearances. He says he prefers to raise money and coordinate strategy for USA NAFTA by phone from his New Jersey office.

Money, however, is the least of the pro-NAFTA lobby's worries. What backers need now is someone who can get the message across as well as Perot. But corporate CEOs have been reluctant to enter the fray, partly because their participation could reinforce Perot's charges that NAFTA is a Big Business conspiracy to shift U.S. jobs to Mexico. "It's a cultural thing," says one business lobbyist. "They can't see themselves arguing with Perot on a talk show."

Even getting retired Chrysler Chairman Iacocca to sell NAFTA has proved difficult for the Administration. While the White House was ready to trot out Iacocca on Sept. 23 for a NAFTA endorsement, BUSINESS WEEK has learned that he remains reluctant to appear in pro-NAFTA TV ads. In discussions with White House strategists, Iacocca expressed concerns that such ads could undermine contract talks between the United Auto Workers, which opposes NAFTA, and the Big Three auto makers. The negotiations won't be completed before late October.

That may be too late to rescue a trade pact that doesn't have enough votes to pass the House. A closer look at the pro-NAFTA campaign reveals a late-starting effort that's way behind the anti-NAFTA crusade. An umbrella group of 2,700 companies that support the pact, USA NAFTA has hired longtime Democratic consultant Anne Wexler to run the grass-roots campaign. But it won't begin in earnest until early October. Perot and other NAFTA critics have pounded the pact for months. And they got a big boost on Sept. 21, when House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) announced his opposition to the accord.

The advertising drive to save NAFTA isn't much further along. It's being handled by the political ad firm of Clinton insider Mandy Grunwald, with production chores falling to veteran Democratic strategist Francis O'Brien. O'Brien says that ads are just beginning to extend beyond Washington to other parts of the nation. Ad experts say the commercials will have to offer a lot more than endorsements for the pact from former Presidents Ford, Bush, and Carter. Indeed, Tonight Show star Jay Leno recently joked that the pact was beingendorsed by "three out-of-work Americans."

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for the pro-NAFTA forces is their reluctance to use perhaps their most powerful argument: As free traders, the CEOs can't bring themselves to trumpet the fact that some of the treaty's protectionist-oriented provisions, such as content rules, could prompt foreign competitors to shift more production to the U.S.

At this point, many CEOs are frustrated that Americans are so lukewarm about NAFTA. "We fail to understand in this country the number of high-paying jobs lost at home when we shut ourselves off from other markets," says Jerry R. Junkins, CEO of Texas Instruments Inc. It's a compelling argument, but unless executives and pact partisans get the story out into the heartland, it may not count for much when Congress begins to determine NAFTA's fate.

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