WASHINGTON — AS some supporters of the North American Free Trade Agreement watch President Clinton's low-profile opening campaign for congressional approval this week, they are counting their fight lost.
Mr. Clinton's plan to submit NAFTA to Congress today, as well as to sign side agreements on environmental and labor standards, offers little reassurance.
The missing element is a major White House campaign to change the terms of debate over the trade agreement. So far, the discussion of NAFTA has been dominated by its critics, most notably Ross Perot, who argue that it will send American jobs to Mexico.
In Congress, even among Republicans, where support is concentrated, NAFTA appears to be losing ground, according to minority leader Robert Michel (R) of Illinois. He attributes this slippage, especially among the wavering freshman members, to Clinton's lack of salesmanship.
``I think NAFTA's dead,'' says one lobbyist for the agreement. ``I've counted noses on Capitol Hill enough [to know this].''
``It's looking worse all the time,'' says Moises Naim, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who follows NAFTA closely. ``The administration continues to be absent.''
Until last week, the White House was offering a picture of three big public campaigns this fall - reinventing government, NAFTA, and health care. But while Clinton headed out of town for several days last week to promote Vice President Al Gore Jr.'s plan to streamline the federal bureaucracy, he will not make a parallel effort this week for NAFTA.
Instead, the plan is for several Cabinet secretaries to testify at House and Senate hearings today and tomorrow, then fan out to major cities to pitch the agreement. US ambassadors to Latin American countries also will stump for the pact.
Without a strong pitch by the president himself, however, the national news is likely to focus at least as heavily this week on the coming health-care debate.
NAFTA, as negotiated with Mexico and Canada, is to take effect on Jan. 1. However, missing this deadline does not necessarily scuttle the accord. Congress has 90 days to vote on it once the president submits it. So if Clinton submits it today, Congress could theoretically approve it early in January to take effect when signed into law.
But it is not clear whether Clinton will have any more time to spend on NAFTA later this fall or winter - after his health-care proposals are formally presented.
``What you're seeing here frankly looks an awful lot like the Dukakis campaign,'' says pro-NAFTA lobbyist Ray Ludwiszewski, referring to the 1988 Democratic presidential nominee's unwillingness to respond to charges. As a result, Mr. Ludwiszewski says, the charges against NAFTA are sticking.
``The president doesn't seem to want to launch a full-scale campaign for NAFTA,'' he complains.
The frustration among NAFTA supporters is that only the president carries a big enough megaphone to reach a wide audience with a pro-NAFTA message.
BUT even these supporters acknowledge that it is not an easy case to make to the public when the economy is skittish. The arguments that NAFTA is a threat are simpler and more immediate than the arguments that it is of mutual long-term benefit to all countries.
``The tragedy is that the short-term, demagogic, populist, myopic, political case against NAFTA was very strong,'' Mr. Naim says. Although he says that the economic competitiveness of the United States will suffer from a failure to pass NAFTA, he acknowledges that its defeat will not have many domestic political repercussions. And if NAFTA were to be approved, every layoff or plant closing in the US would be blamed on it.
The scuttling of NAFTA might leave more political fallout in Mexico, which has been opening its still-protected economy dramatically under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. His term expires next year, and a rebuff from the US on NAFTA could bring in a more protectionist successor.
NAFTA will first come before the House of Representative - where it is less popular than in the Senate - because congressional leaders want to spare senators the pain of voting for a controversial bill that might fail anyway.
``The passions are flowing against it'' in the House, says Speaker Thomas Foley (D) of Washington. A slim majority of Democrats is against NAFTA now, he says, but the picture is constantly changing.
``You're going to get into the last hours of this before you know how some members are going to vote,'' the Speaker told a Monitor breakfast last week.