By Juliet Eilperin and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
CARTAGENA, Colombia, July 1 -- Sen. John McCain arrived here Tuesday night on his third foreign trip since clinching the Republican presidential nomination, the latest attempt to embellish his international credentials at a time when the electorate is increasingly focused on domestic issues.
McCain's latest trip -- to Colombia and Mexico -- is designed to highlight his positions on trade and, to a lesser degree, immigration. Its value has been questioned by campaign strategists in both parties, since neither issue seems a winner for his campaign. His insistence on the virtues of free trade remain suspect in Rust Belt swing states, and his position on immigration continues to make many conservatives wary.
That raises a difficult question for his campaign: Can a presidential candidate really win by "expanding the map" to Mexico, Colombia, Canada and Europe?
Speaking to reporters on his arrival in Colombia, McCain (Ariz.) said he will stick by his support for free trade because "I have to do what I think is right for America. But I want to add very quickly: I understand the pain people are going through. I understand the challenges."
Asked whether his trade position will hurt his campaign, he took a swipe at his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.): "I take stands on principle, and I don't switch positions depending on what audience or what time it is in the electoral calendar."
But the electoral risks are significant in a country that by better than a 2 to 1 margin thinks global trade has been bad for the U.S. economy, according to a recent survey by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.
Worse for his chances of winning the White House in the fall, recent surveys show growing majorities of the public think free-trade policies lead to job losses, slow the economy and pose a threat to the country's economic recovery. Almost a third of voters say free trade has probably hurt their family's financial situation.
McCain's three-day trip follows one to Canada last week in which he extolled the virtues of an open border and talked about the "shared destiny" and "productive" relationship between the two countries. Aides said McCain will have another chance to put his foreign policy experience on display when he meets with Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and Mexican President Felipe Calderón.
Critics of McCain's position on trade have cited abusive treatment of labor activists in both countries, and he hopes to confront the issue on the trip. He has called the situation in Mexico "serious" but has said that any human rights abuses in Colombia have to be balanced against Uribe's "rescue of Colombia from a failed-state status."
In an interview before leaving the United States, McCain acknowledged that his high-profile crusade for free-trade agreements with Latin America remains a hard sell with many U.S. voters.
But, the senator added, he had no other choice: "For me to give up my advocacy of free trade would be a betrayal of trust. I think the most precious commodity I have with the American people is that they trust me."
He will have a hard time convincing leaders of organized labor. James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters union, which has endorsed Obama, said McCain's trips abroad are an "insult" to Americans.
"It shows shocking insensitivity to the current problems we face," Hoffa said. "People can't fill up their car with gasoline. People are losing their homes. And he's in Canada and Colombia worried about more free trade, which will export American jobs."
Hoffa said McCain's prospects are especially bleak in the very places where many observers expect the presidential race to be most critical: manufacturing states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
"Trade is basically killing jobs in all the major states in the Midwest," Hoffa said.
Sallie James, a trade policy analyst for the libertarian Cato Institute, rejected that argument, saying the benefits of free trade are more difficult to see. But she acknowledged that McCain will probably take a beating in those states for his position.
"His stance on free trade is not going to win him the election," she said. "And even if some Americans think it's a good thing, there are other issues on their agenda right now."
But she said McCain stands to benefit politically from his adherence to an unpopular policy.
"Some of these people might be upset. But is that outweighed by people saying, 'Well, he says what he believes, no matter the cost'?" she asked. "It is, if it reinforces his brand as a straight talker."
That was clearly on McCain's mind as he boarded his new campaign jet, emblazoned with the Straight Talk Express logo, for the trip to Colombia.
In order to assuage voters' concerns about lost manufacturing jobs, McCain said he will push to revamp U.S. programs aimed at workers who lose their jobs to overseas plants. Calling those programs "terrible," McCain said he would empower community colleges to take charge of the programs even as he pushed to lower trade barriers for foreign goods.
"We need to fix the displaced-worker program and the unemployment insurance program to bring it up to the 21st century from the 1950s. . . . Herbert Hoover signed into law the Smoot-Hawley tariff acts and we went from a recession to the country's deepest depression in modern history," he said. "So I've got to convince people, particularly those who have recently and suddenly lost their jobs, that I have a plan to give them the kind of education and training they need, so they can reenter the workforce and lead even more profitable and better lives than the jobs they left."
Asked whether the trip could bolster his standing among Latinos, a voting bloc he has courted assiduously, McCain said Hispanic voters are more interested in his stances on education, jobs and health insurance than on his trips abroad.
"I hope that it would give them some assurance that I understand the issues and challenges that the countries that they came from face, but I don't think there's a large number of voters that are going to say, 'Gee, John McCain went to wherever it was and therefore I'm going to vote for him,' " he said.
The larger question, however, is whether McCain's outspoken support for greater ties to Latin America will prove a liability with some Americans who have grown increasingly hostile to Latino immigrants, both legal and illegal.
During the primaries, McCain did worst among voters who identified immigration as their top concern. An ABC News analysis of polling data from all states with GOP exit polls showed that McCain received only 30 percent of the vote in that group, while getting more than 40 percent of voters with other top issues.
The issue of immigration remains a vital one for the Republican Party's conservative base. A USA Today-Gallup poll found that 73 percent of conservatives describe the issue of illegal immigration as very important or extremely important this year. Among all adults, 58 percent described illegal immigration that way.
During a town hall meeting in Pipersville, Pa., on Monday, McCain did not discuss his Latin American trip, but one woman questioned why she has to deal with Spanish speakers in the United States.
"Why, as an American, do I have to push a button to speak English or hear English?" she asked, prompting a huge round of applause.
"I think you struck a nerve," McCain told the woman, laughing a little nervously.
"I'm telling you, I really get ticked," she replied.
McCain started his response by reiterating his commitment to cracking down on illegal immigration -- "We have to have comprehensive immigration reform, and the first step has to be securing our borders." But he also reminded the questioner that diversity remains a key part of America's identity.
"There's a thing that's wonderful about America, and I'm sure you'll appreciate it, we welcome all cultures from all over the world," he said.
Shear reported from Washington. Polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.