By NEDRA PICKLER
The Associated Press
Monday, March 3, 2008; 6:47 PM
SAN ANTONIO -- Barack Obama said Monday that his campaign never gave Canada back-channel assurances that his harsh words about the North American Free Trade Agreement were for political show _ despite the disclosure of a Canadian memo indicating otherwise.
According to the memo obtained by The Associated Press, Obama's senior economic adviser told Canadian officials in Chicago that the debate over free trade in the Democratic presidential primary campaign was "political positioning" and that Obama was not really protectionist.
The adviser, Austan Goolsbee, said his comments to those officials were misinterpreted by the author, Joseph DeMora, who works for the Canadian consulate in Chicago and attended the meeting.
In Carrollton, Texas, Obama told reporters: "Nobody reached out to the Canadians to try to assure them of anything."
Asked why he had appeared to deny a report last week that such a meeting had taken place, Obama said: "That was the information I had at the time."
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper disputed the contention of his political opposition that Canadian officials leaked word of the meeting to complicate Obama's chances or to favor Republican Sen. John McCain, who strongly supports NAFTA.
Harper told Parliament he was amused by the suggestion "we are so all powerful that we could interfere in the American election and pick their president for them. This government doesn't claim that kind of power. I certainly deny any allegation that this government has attempted to interfere in the American election."
Harper said he has watched the U.S. campaign closely and believes all leading candidates from both parties _ Obama, McCain and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton _ "would continue the strong friendship and partnership that Canada and the United States enjoys."
The original report by CTV in Canada suggested an Obama emissary had reached out to officials at the Canadian Embassy in Washington. Embassy officials artfully denied any such contact had been made with them.
As it turned out, the meeting took place in Chicago instead, with Canadian Consul General Georges Rioux and DeMora taking notes.
Obama said that one of his advisers had been invited by someone at the consulate to visit and discuss trade.
"The Canadian Embassy confirmed that he said everything I said on the campaign trail," Obama asserted.
"We think the terms of NAFTA have to be altered" to strengthen environmental and labor protections, he said.
The memo says: "Noting anxiety among many U.S. domestic audiences about the U.S. economic outlook, Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign."
It went on: "He cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans."
Goolsbee disputed the characterization.
"This thing about 'it's more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans,' that's this guy's language," Goolsbee said of DeMora. "He's not quoting me.
"I certainly did not use that phrase in any way," he said.
NAFTA is widely opposed in economically depressed Ohio, which holds its presidential primary Tuesday and is a battleground between Obama and Clinton.
Clinton said Monday that Obama's campaign gave the Canadians "the old wink-wink."
"I think that's the kind of difference between talk and action that I've been talking about," Clinton told reporters while campaigning in Ohio. "It raises questions about Senator Obama coming to Ohio and giving speeches against NAFTA."
Both candidates said in a debate in Cleveland last week that they would use the threat of pulling out of NAFTA to persuade Canada and Mexico to negotiate more protections for workers and the environment in the agreement.
The memo obtained by the AP was widely distributed within the Canadian government. It is more than 1,300 words and covers many topics that DeMora said were discussed in the Feb. 8 "introductory meeting."
Goolsbee "was frank in saying that the primary campaign has been necessarily domestically focused, particularly in the Midwest, and that much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political maneuvering than policy," the memo's introduction said.
"On NAFTA, Goolsbee suggested that Obama is less about fundamentally changing the agreement and more in favour of strengthening/clarifying language on labour mobility and environment and trying to establish these as more `core' principles of the agreement."
Goolsbee said that sentence is true and consistent with Obama's position. But he said other portions of the memo were inaccurate.
In a statement, the Canadian Embassy expressed regret on how the discussions have been interpreted.
The statement said "there was no intention to convey, in any way, that Senator Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private, including about NAFTA."
Goolsbee said the visit lasted about 40 minutes, and perhaps two to three minutes were spent discussing NAFTA. He said the Canadians asked about Obama's position, and he replied about his interest in improving labor and environmental standards, and they raised some concerns that Obama sounds like a protectionist.
Goolsbee said he responded that Obama is not a protectionist, but that the Illinois senator tries to strike a balance between the economic struggles of working Americans and recognizing that free trade is good for the economy.
"That's a pretty ham-handed description of what I answered," Goolsbee said of the memo's description of "political positioning." "A: In no possible way was that a reference to NAFTA. And B: In no possible way was I inferring that he was going to introduce any policies that you should ignore and he had no intention of enacting. Those are both completely crazy."
AP writer Rob Gillies contributed to this story from Toronto.
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