Image: John McCain
LM Otero  /  AP
Sen. John McCain, center, listens to Tom Gardner, right, as Raymond Kitner looks on during a tour of the Turbine Airfoil Design plant in Harrisburg, Penn., on Monday.
updated 7/1/2008 3:24:52 PM ET 2008-07-01T19:24:52

John McCain portrayed free trade Tuesday as a win-win proposition for the U.S. and its Latin American economic partners, but labor leaders said it's been a big loser for Rust Belt voters.

The Republican presidential hopeful was beginning a three-day visit to Colombia and Mexico after a campaign swing through Indiana and Pennsylvania, two states hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs due in part to trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada, which McCain strongly supports.

On the day McCain left, Democrat Barack Obama repeated his vow to renegotiate NAFTA if elected president to include enforceable labor and environmental provisions. At a news conference in Ohio, a state hard-hit by job losses, Obama said, "The United States wanting to make sure that its ... standards aren't being undermined isn't imperialist."

Although Obama didn't mention McCain or his trip, a prominent Obama supporter criticized McCain's visit on a conference call with reporters.

"Today after he finishes his speech here in Indiana, he's hoping on a plane and going to Colombia and Mexico to talk about how much our trade agreements are going to help those countries, rather than taking about what we can do to help this country," United Auto Workers vice president Terry Thurman said.

"Now I find it no surprise that he's going to go to Mexico to talk about how great NAFTA is because he's certainly is not going to find much support for it here in the Hoosier state."

McCain conceded Monday he still has work to do to convince voters in industrial swing states in the Midwest, where the presidential election could be decided, that his support for free trade will benefit them, not just cost more jobs. He pledged to improve programs for displaced workers and unemployment insurance if elected, but acknowledged that wouldn't be enough.

"I have to convince them the consequences of protectionism and isolationism could be damaging to their future," the Arizona senator said.

"I understand it's very tough. But for me to give up my advocacy of free trade would be a betrayal of trust," he said. "And the most precious commodity I have with the American people is that they trust me."

McCain's trip bookended a visit earlier this month to Ottawa, where he talked up cross-border cooperation with Canada on economic issues, especially trade.

When McCain went to Canada, Obama suggested he went to promote the agreement rather than stay home and defend his views in places like Ohio and other states where NAFTA is blamed for shifting millions of manufacturing jobs to other countries.

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Video: Obama denies NAFTA comment NAFTA and other free trade deals were a flash point in Obama's primary campaign against Hillary Rodham Clinton.

McCain insisted the trip to Latin America was not intended to be political and said he would not criticize Obama directly while abroad. He made a similar pledge when he visited Canada but took a swipe at the Democrat nonetheless, suggesting without using Obama's name that the Illinois senator's opposition to NAFTA was "nothing more than retreating behind protectionist walls."

Colombia and Mexico
McCain was to arrive in Cartagena, Colombia, on Tuesday and meet with President Alvaro Uribe and several cabinet ministers. McCain also is a strong supporter of a proposed free-trade agreement with Colombia that is stalled in Congress. The House blocked a vote over issues that include violence against labor activists in the country.

McCain said Uribe had rescued Colombia from becoming a "failed state" and only indirectly criticized the government's human rights record. While he said he anyone perpetuating human rights abuses in the country should be arrested and tried, he insisted the country's struggle with the issue was no justification for blocking the proposed agreement.

In Mexico City, he planned to address illegal immigration — an emotional issue both for Hispanic voters and many conservatives.

McCain co-sponsored Senate legislation that would have allowed illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S., work and apply to become legal residents after learning English, paying fines and back taxes, and clearing a background check. The measure failed last year and McCain since has talked primarily about the importance of boosting border security, and less so about a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally.

In a speech last Saturday to elected Latino officials, McCain pledged that the issue will be "my top priority yesterday, today and tomorrow."

Besides immigration, McCain said he would congratulate the leaders both Mexico and Canada for their efforts to wipe out drug cartels, but that he also would press them to step up their efforts.

"I think it's important our friends and neighbors understand our commitment to them. What happens in Colombia and Mexico is very important to the future of America," he said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: McCain: Free trade “engine” of economy


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