A Gop Stronghold Says: Pipe Down, Ross

The Red Blazer's rafters are rich with the symbols of New Hampshire's rustic past: Wooden rakes, antique photos, and mounted deer heads fill this restaurant on the outskirts of Concord, the state capital. But when it comes to politics, sentiment doesn't count for much here.

Nine local residents talked with BUSINESS WEEK during the Nov. 9 debate between Vice-President Al Gore and anti-NAFTA crusader Ross Perot. The consensus: Emotional calls to protect America's standard of living by rejecting the free trade pact don't cut it in this largely Republican city of 36,000.

CONFUSION. A year ago, Concord voters looking for change gave Bill Clinton a solid boost in the Presidential election. Now, they're swinging behind NAFTA--despite a strong 17% showing for Perot in the race for the White House. One reason: Economic fears that contributed to Perot's support have since cooled. The area's unemployment rate has fallen to 4.4%, well below the national average, and on-time payments of city property taxes have risen sharply since early 1992. "There's a chance of something good happening if NAFTA passes. I don't see what good happens if it doesn't pass," says Dean J. DeLaHaye, an electronics technician who last year lost his job, then found a lower-paying position after nine months out of work.

If these residents are any indication, Perot's debate performance didn't play well. Rather than carve out a toehold for the 1996 Presidential elections, the Texan's performance may have damaged his credibility. Laughter erupted in the Red Blazer's bar the minute the feisty business executive pulled out his colorful charts. "There he goes," quipped retired cable-TV system operator Robert Baxter. When Perot later professed sympathy for Mexican workers exploited by low-paying jobs, housewife Ellen Fries threw up her hands at the apparent contradiction: "If Mexicans have no money, how does refusing to buy their products help them? It doesn't add up." Nationwide, viewers shared her confusion: Sympathy seemed to swing markedly pro-NAFTA (chart).

New Hampshire has already endured the reshaping of its business community by regional and global competitors. The state's largest electric utility, Public Service Co. of New Hampshire, fell into bankruptcy in 1988 and was sold last year to a Connecticut power company. And the collapse of the state's real estate boom five years ago forced the FDIC to consolidate its five largest banks into three. All now are owned by companies from outside the state or nation.

Residents say the wholesale restructuring has helped take some of the fear out of NAFTA. The state's proximity to Canada, moreover, makes people here relatively open to cross-border trade. Weekends find Canadian auto-racing fans flocking to a nearby speedway and shopping in Concord stores. Regina Baxter, a local artist whose works have been bought by Canadian tourists, says the anti-NAFTA furor ignores the benefits of trade with Canada. "We're hearing about Mexico all the time, and no one is saying anything about Canada," she says. After the U.S. signed a free-trade agreement with Canada, New Hampshire shifted its business and tourist recruitment efforts to Canada--from Europe and elsewhere.

Job losses? Giant sucking sound? Tonight, it's not so big a worry. Attorney David Fries, Ellen's husband, discounts Perot's argument that cheap Mexican labor will usurp U.S. jobs. True, Fries says, some jobs will head south regardless of which way the NAFTA vote goes. But if the treaty passes, he says, "we're more likely to increase jobs in companies by expanding the market." Moreover, he adds, environmental opponents to NAFTA should view economic self-interest as the best way to counter lax antipollution enforcement in Mexico: "There's a higher likelihood of new environmental laws if we have a real economic relationship rather than shut them out."

It was a good night, then, for Gore, whose challenging of Perot's facts and logic seemed to score with residents here. But the TV fireworks don't necessarily translate into support from New Hampshire's representatives in Congress. Its two senators and two U.S. representatives are split evenly over NAFTA--with the state's lone Democrat, Representative Dick Swett, opposing the pact. "There's no love here for the Clinton Administration," says John Udaloy, a loan officer. NAFTA may fly in Concord's Red Blazer, but Congress is likely to be less friendly.