Because of an editing error, a report Aug. 1 about a runoff election in the 1st Congressional District in Texas attributed to Republican candidate Edd Hargett a statement calling the Democrats' emphasis on the foreign trade deficit "a kind of sucker punch." The statement was made by a Hargett strategist.
A farm forum here the other night for candidates in a special congressional election had been a four-alarm snore until Jimmy West got up to talk about his run-in this summer with foreign competition.
The instant he told his story -- he is sitting on a $30,000 oat crop because he has been undercut at the local feed mill by Danish imports -- the hall was alive with grievance and cuss words.
For the rest of the night, nobody wanted to talk about anything else, least of all Jim Chapman, Democratic candidate for the open seat in Saturday's special election in this northeast Texas district.
"The exact situation you describe, we're finding with Korean steel, Canadian lumber, Argentinian dairy imports, Saudi oil and gas, Italian textiles," said Chapman, warming to the issue he thinks will help him eke out a win in a bitter race against Republican Edd Hargett for a seat no Republican has held since Reconstruction.
"Right down the list, you name the industry, you name the country, we're getting our lunch eaten by subsidized foreign imports," Chapman concluded.
Hargett is considerably cooler to the issue, which he calls "a kind of sucker punch. They're trying to draw us into talking about it, and we'd rather focus on the honesty and integrity issue."
Calling himself a philosophical free-trader, he urges enforcement of existing laws to prevent the dumping of foreign goods on domestic markets. He has scored few points talking trade, and he is talking about it as little as possible.
But tough talk on trade is emerging as the hottest new Democratic theme in this year of soul-searching and regrouping. One protectionist bill -- the Democrats prefer to call it a "fair trade" measures -- was introduced by leading Democrats in Congress last week. More are on the way, and Chapman's race is giving the national party a chance to do a little market research as it figures out how to hone the issue for the 1986 midterm races.
So far they like what they see.
"The good news out of the Texas race, win draw or lose, is that we have an issue we know we can use next year," said Martin Franks, executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
"It's hotter than a pistol," added George Shipley, Chapman's pollster and chief strategist. "It seems to cut with everyone -- farmers, workers, seniors, small businessman."
The 1st Congressional District is fertile turf for the trade talk. It is a mix of farming and light industry, loaded with small-town populist animus toward anything big or foreign, and in the last year, its unemployment rate has shot up by one-third to 9.4 percent. The increase is due largely to plant layoffs, especially at Lone Star Steel, attributable in part to foreign competition.
Trade, Chapman added, is a great jobs and unemployment issue, and more.
"It is a real red-white-and-blue issue," he said, peppering his talk on the subject with calls for the "greatest country in the free world" to reverse its "unilateral disarmament" on trade and use its "might" to make its trading partners "play fair."
"It's a way for our party to get at some of those pro-Amercian chords that Reagan sounds so well," said one Washington Democratic strategist.
National surveys over the past decade have shown that large majorites of Americans favor import restrictions on foreign goods priced lower than American goods: Last fall, a Roper Organization poll put the number supporting such restrictions at 66 percent.
With the U.S. trade deficit soaring to record highs this year, it would seem an ever riper issue for the Democrats -- though recent history illustrates that it has its share of pitfalls.
In 1983 and early 1984, Walter F. Mondale opened his Democratic presidential campaign talking tough on trade, only to abandon the issue when Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) turned around and used it to paint him as a pawn of the unions.
Here in right-to-work Texas, Hargett is running television ads that attack Chapman as a pawn of the "East Coast labor bosses," although he has not linked the label to the trade issue.
Hargett says protectionist bills will only raise consumer prices and invite retaliatory strikes in foreign capitals against good East Texas farmers. But he also says he has two brothers who lost their jobs at Lone Star Steel, and he faults the International Trade Commission for not doing a better job of "enforcing laws already on the books to stop dumping."
If Hargett, 37, a former Texas A&M football star making his first bid for public office, is a bit uncomfortable talking about trade, there is a reason: He was quoted last week in the Texarkana Gazette saying, "I don't know what trade policies have to do with bringing jobs to East Texas." The Chapman campaign, which has been harping on Hargett's political inexperience, put the statement in a television ad that is running frequently this week.
Chapman also is hammering at Social Security and trying to remind voters that Hargett is a Republican, something his opponent does not go out of his way to advertise.
"This election isn't about party or politics," say the Hargett radio ads, "it is about honesty and integrity." Hargett has made an issue of a Chapman mailing on Social Security that looked like an official government document and of allegations that the Chapman campaign was involved in alleged tampering with absentee ballots.
The 1st District vacancy was created this spring when the Democratic incumbent, Sam B. Hall Jr., was appointed to a federal judgeship.
Hargett is counting heavily that his shy, down-home personality and his Aggie football connections will be more palatable to East Texans than Chapman's more assertive demeanor.
A former prosecutor, Chapman, 40, lost a tough, slashing Democratic party primary for state Senate last year, and some of those wounds have not healed. State Sen. Ed Howard (D) of the district has declined to endorse him