WASHINGTON — ONLY President Clinton can rally public support and save the faltering North American Free Trade Agreement, says Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, the No. 2 Republican in the House.
Representative Gingrich, the Republican whip and a strong NAFTA supporter, says the White House needs a ``consistent, maniacal focus'' to educate Americans during the next six weeks on the benefits of the accord.
Despite support for NAFTA by two former Republican presidents, George Bush and Gerald Ford, Gingrich says Mr. Clinton cannot count on the GOP to save the agreement in the House of Representatives, where opposition is strong.
NAFTA may get the votes of fewer than 100 of the 259 Democratic House members, Gingrich says. At 100 Democratic votes, NAFTA is ``in trouble.'' At 90 votes, ``it is dead,'' he says. Most House Republicans are expected to back NAFTA.
Gingrich told a breakfast meeting of reporters yesterday that when Democratic majority leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri came out against NAFTA, it cost the agreement 25 Democratic votes, plus another 10 Republican votes.
Only Clinton can reverse those numbers, by convincing the country that NAFTA means more jobs, Gingrich says. The president also is ``the only person that can take on [Ross] Perot,'' perhaps the agreement's most implacable foe, he says.
Gingrich worries that the White House will take the focus off of NAFTA because of health care, the Russian political crisis, and the program to reinvent government.
As for Clinton's health- care plan, Gingrich predicts a burst of support after last night's scheduled presidential address to Congress. But within two weeks, he expects enthusiasm to wane as the high cost becomes known.
As Gingrich puts it: ``It's the difference between visiting the Ferrari showroom, and having to pay for it.''
In the end, Gingrich predicts a compromise between a Democratic Ferrari and a practical Republican station wagon. What compromise? ``A Ford Explorer,'' he says.