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Out of America: Test of wills in the land of the free trade agreement

WASHINGTON - True students of the US should put a ring around the date of 17 November. At first glance, the advice seems misplaced: trade and tariffs, after all, are not the stuff of political heroics, as anyone who has followed the meanderings of Gatt will attest.

But 17 November will be different. That day, the House of Representatives is due to vote on the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta). For Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, indeed for the very psyche of the US, it promises to be a defining moment.

Make no mistake, Nafta will be the battle of this Congress. The first phase of the health care debate has ended. A reform plan may or may not be approved before next autumn's mid-term elections; but even if the outcome is failure, Mr Clinton will have been seen to have given it his best shot.

Nafta, which would link Canada, the US and Mexico in the world's largest trading bloc, is another matter. The White House has nailed its colours to the mast; Mr Perot has made Nafta's destruction his political raison d'etre. And if the Texas billionaire prevails, America's crisis of self-belief will have been carved in stone.

Listen to the arguments rage, and you realise that this is less a reasoned discussion of competing facts than a journey into a country's darkest economic fears. For confirmation, you need look no further than a mendacious little volume from Mr Perot that has been driving the debate. Save Your Job, Save Our Country; Why Nafta must be stopped - Now, is its title. It conjures up a vision of 6 million lost jobs and the departure of a third of US manufacturing industry south of the border.

The book is a farrago of conspiracy theories, half-truths and downright lies. Mr Perot has turned Nafta into the American nightmare made flesh: an advanced industrialised economy ruined by unfair Third World competition. A victory for Mr Perot would be a victory for US isolationism.

And so to Mr Clinton. This is a vital moment in his presidency. After the miseries of last spring and early summer, his approval ratings have recovered, according to one poll last week, to an eminently respectable 56 per cent. Yet for all his articulacy and command of detail, he remains an elusive figure. He may grasp an issue, but fails to shape it. His administration preaches American activism and involvement in the world, but its deeds point the other way.

He is liked, but not truly respected. He has yet to teach fractious Congressional Democrats they cannot spurn him with impunity. Nafta offers the chance to wipe the slate clean. If it were voted on tomorrow the measure, almost certainly, would be defeated by opponents within his own party.

But Mr Clinton still has six weeks left, to twist arms and make his case to the country. The prize would be huge, proof at last that beneath the smoothness there is steel. And just maybe, it is starting to happen. Last month, he wheeled out three former presidents, two Republicans and a Democrat, to make the Nafta case. The US Trade Representative's office has temporarily put aside its quarrel with Europe over Gatt to issue a 74-page paper, demolishing point-by-point every bogus assertion of Mr Perot. On Monday Mr Clinton carried his cause into the lion's den of the main trade union organisation, the AFL-CIO.

And something else is working in his favour. If opinion surveys are correct, Mr Perot's strident exhortations are beginning to grate on the national nerve. True, he still scares the wits out of Congressmen of both parties facing re-election next year, terrified that Perot supporters will vote en masse against them if they support Nafta. A few days ago, too, the combined forces of Mr Perot and radio talk-show hosts forced through an arcane, but possibly momentous, change in the House rules, opening hitherto secret Congressional voting lists to public scrutiny.

But Perot's 'negatives' are on the rise too. After so much expenditure of energy and money, Nafta's passage would be a crushing blow. No wonder so much is riding on 17 November, for Mr Perot, for the world's view of America, and for America's view of Mr Clinton.