President Clinton's ringing public adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement last week ended a political debate waged not only among his closest advisers, but also within Clinton himself.

The trail that took Clinton to that White House ceremony began in the early days of the 1992 presidential campaign and passed through Midwestern union halls, an Arlington hotel suite and negotiating rooms in Ottawa, Mexico City and Washington.

Along the way, Clinton did not stray from his belief that expanded trade would strengthen the U.S. economy, according to administration officials and former campaign aides who participated in the decision. Rather, the debate concerned the politics of a trade agreement they feared could cost the jobs of individual Americans.

Clinton's personal struggle with NAFTA is a portrait of his decision-making that reveals his many parts: Intellect, compassion, calculation, indecision and resolve. The debate mirrors the battle over the agreement itself that is spreading around the country as Congress prepares to vote on the agreement, which would remove trade tariffs between the United States, Canada and Mexico.

The decision involved plainly political calculations over the trade agreement -- begun by President Ronald Reagan and concluded by President George Bush -- that could strengthen his presidential credentials but alienate his party's oldest, truest supporters in the labor movement, which is ardently opposed to NAFTA.

Clinton's stance is full of irony. He won last year's election by portraying himself as more concerned about the average American than Bush. And now he has thrown the prestige of his presidency behind an uphill battle for a trade agreement that Bush had pressed for and that critics charge benefits big business at the expense of many of the very Americans Clinton championed in the campaign.

Turning Point

The turning point for Clinton's decision came in a three-hour meeting with campaign advisers in a suite at an Arlington hotel on Sept. 29 last year, just weeks after the Bush administration had completed NAFTA negotiations with Mexico and Canada. Before then, Clinton had hedged about the agreement.

At heart, Clinton believes in the importance of expanded trade as a critical element of the country's economic future. It was a lesson he learned as Arkansas governor, when he had led personal campaigns to attract foreign investment to his state.

In late 1991, as Clinton moved around the country in his nascent campaign for the presidency, he voiced support for the authority for the president to send NAFTA to Congress for consideration without amendment, a stand that organized labor opposed.

The position cast him as a "new Democrat" who was willing to stand up to the unions, reflecting his belief that his main competition in the 1992 primaries would be a traditional liberal such as New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) or Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).

The dynamic of the campaign changed when Paul E. Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator, and former California governor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. ended up as his main opponents. Tsongas forced Clinton to begin to move left; Brown taunted him to move even farther left -- farther than was politically smart.

Clinton was under pressure to yield to the unions on NAFTA before the Michigan primary in March 1992. Instead, he went into a United Auto Workers hall in Flint, Mich., and delivered an eloquent defense of his position to a hostile audience. But to avoid a break with labor, he held out the possibility that he could oppose the NAFTA treaty, saying he doubted he could support something Bush negotiated.

In August, the hypothetical agreement suddenly become a reality. The Bush administration pushed hurriedly through the remaining pieces of NAFTA, announced the agreement at the White House with election-year fanfare -- and immediately pressed Clinton to take a stand.

If Clinton supported the pact, he risked a major break with labor, a key Democratic constituency. If he opposed it, he would undercut his efforts to portray himself as a "new Democrat" by leaving himself open to the charge that he was a tool of organized labor.

Against that backdrop, Clinton brought together a large group of advisers, combining both his chief political strategists and his trade experts, at the Arlington hotel.

Clinton, in Washington for the funeral of Democratic National Committee political director Paul Tully, arrived in jogging clothes for the 9 p.m. meeting. Characteristically, he had already digested the briefing papers on the issue and knew their arguments chapter and verse.

He began by reminding the group of his belief in free trade. "In principle, I'm strongly for this agreement," he said, according a participant. "I'm worried about many of the details. ... Who gets hurt, and why?"

Clinton had just finished a campaign trip by bus through rural Georgia with his running mate, then-Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), and what he had seen and heard made him anguish over whether to support NAFTA.

"They loved us, but they don't want NAFTA," several participants recalled him saying. NAFTA could be the best policy for the country, but what could he say to those who rightly feared that competition with Mexico's cheaper products would cost them their jobs?

"I believe in open trade and open markets," Clinton said. "But I have to figure out how to do it."

Rancor in the Ranks His advisers were deeply split.

David Wilhelm, who was then Clinton's campaign chairman and is now DNC chairman, stressed the political risk Clinton would take by backing NAFTA, participants said. If the race were close, the loss of even one industrial state over the trade issue would be a hard price to pay.

Stanley Greenberg, Clinton's pollster, said that if Clinton supported NAFTA, he would lose enough support to Ross Perot to throw Michigan's 18 electoral votes to Bush.

Top adviser George Stephanopoulos, speaking for himself and strategist James Carville, urged Clinton to simply endorse NAFTA to neutralize it as an issue. Since Clinton was leading Bush at the time, he said, it was essential to take as many issues away from Bush as possible.

But Greenberg and others said there could be important political gains from backing NAFTA too. Even though many voters were uneasy about the Mexican trade issue, they were not against trade itself, Greenberg said.

"People want their president to be forward-looking, optimistic, expansive about the economy, not defeatist and isolationist," Greenberg said in a recent interview.

Others argued that Clinton would underscore his self-portrayal as a "new Democrat" if he backed NAFTA. That would help him more in such states as California that have large blocs of independent votes than it would hurt him in the industrial states, those advisers said.

Bridging the Divide

In the end, Clinton characteristically decided to attempt to bridge the two sides of the debate.

He would announce his support for NAFTA as it stood -- but only if Mexico and Canada agreed to additional side provisions addressing the concerns of labor and environmental groups, two key constituencies. It was one of two options his advisers had prepared -- the other was to reject NAFTA but promise to renegotiate a new agreement. NAFTA would also have to be accompanied by a new retraining program for workers who lost their jobs in the process.

"It's very typical of Bill Clinton," said Paula Stern, a trade consultant who advised Clinton during the campaign but did not participate in the September meeting. "He tries to find a position where everyone can sign on."

Hillary Rodham Clinton attended the meeting but said little, according to participants. Her one question was of basic strategy -- as president, could Clinton control NAFTA and keep it from being enacted if Canada and Mexico balked at the side agreements? The answer was, he could.

The political anxieties did not go away.

Clinton's NAFTA position was spelled out at a speech Oct. 4 speech in Raleigh, N.C. On the day of the speech, he placed phone calls to seek the support of AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and Henry G. Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio, Tex., and now housing and urban development secretary.

He fidgeted with his message on the way to North Carolina, producing a speech that moved back and forth between the pros and cons of the trade agreement.

"If it is done right, it will create jobs in the United States and in Mexico," Clinton declared that day. "... I'm convinced that I will do it right. I am equally convinced that Mr. Bush won't."

Clinton's stamp was now on NAFTA.

'Mission Impossible'

After Clinton took office, it took U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor seven months to get the side agreements, which extracted more concessions from Mexico and Canada than most NAFTA supporters had considered possible. "I must say I thought it was 'Mission Impossible,' " Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.), a NAFTA supporter, said last week.

One side agreement enabled Clinton to hold onto a large part of the environmental movement, although there is strong opposition there as well. But a second has not won over a critical bloc of undecided Democrats, headed by Gephardt. Labor has vowed to defeat NAFTA.

But now the adoption is complete. It is Clinton's NAFTA now.

Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.