By David Ljunggren
Monday, March 3, 2008; 3:04 PM
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada on Monday denied it had tried to sway the U.S. presidential election by misrepresenting Democratic candidate Barack Obama with the suggestion that he didn't really believe his criticisms of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Obama and rival Hillary Clinton -- who both blame the deal for job losses -- say the United States could quit NAFTA unless Canada and Mexico agree to major changes.
Key Obama economic advisor Austan Goolsbee discussed his candidate's policies with the Canadian consulate in Chicago, which wrote a report suggesting Obama's words on NAFTA were designed for a political audience and shouldn't be taken too seriously.
The report was leaked to the U.S. media, prompting some Democrats to accuse Canada's right-leaning Conservative government of trying to interfere in the election -- a charge dismissed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"I certainly deny any allegation that this government has attempted to interfere in the American election," he told Parliament.
"The American people will make the decision as to their next president and I am confident that whoever that person is ... (they) will continue the strong alliance, friendship and partnership that we enjoy with the United States."
Canada sends 75 percent of its exports to the United States and would be badly hurt if Washington pulled out of NAFTA. Government and opposition officials in Canada say they don't believe the talk of withdrawal is serious.
"In the recent report produced by the consulate general in Chicago, 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," said a foreign ministry spokesman.
"We deeply regret any inference that may have been drawn to that effect."
Political rivals in Canada regularly accuse Harper of following the policies of U.S. President George W. Bush.
Canada's opposition left-leaning New Democrats have demanded that Harper fire Chief of Staff Ian Brodie, whom they accuse of leaking the document.
"I'm a little bit amused by the question of the leader of the (New Democrats) who is suggesting that we are so all-powerful we could interfere in the American election, pick their president for them. This government doesn't claim that kind of power," said Harper.
(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Bernadette Baum)