Whoever enters the White House in January, he must grapple with the complexities of evolving trade agreements and the urgent need to step up United States competitiveness in overseas markets. While the US has had a long history of trade frictions with Japan and the European Community, the central trade issue this election year is the newly initialed North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), linking the United States with its neighbors, Canada and Mexico. BUSH

Pointing to US exports as the single most important factor in US economic growth during the past several years, Bush says he is doing all he can to promote America as the world's "export superpower."

NAFTA - which is designed to ensure the free flow of goods, services, labor, and investments for 360 million people with a combined output of $6 trillion - may be one of the crowning achievements of the Bush administration.

Nonetheless, strong opposition from labor and environmental groups prompted Bush to offer the Worker Adjustment Initiative, which would mean up to $1 billion annually to retrain workers adversely affected by the agreement.

He has repeatedly called the resolution of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), now in its sixth year of negotiations, a top priority.

But the president's election-year pledge of agricultural credits to American wheat, soy, and cottonseed farmers angered European Community officials whose trade negotiators currently are embroiled with the US in heated discussions over reducing subsidies and other barriers to farm trade. CLINTON

He supports bilateral and multilateral trade agreements with countries based on reciprocal market-access rights.

Without them, he cautions, there should be "measures on the books" to penalize unfair traders "that don't take forever and a day to implement."

Some people speculate that if Clinton wins on Nov. 3, he will reject the pending NAFTA agreement and start with fresh negotiations.

But Clinton says he supports NAFTA, with the provision that Congress can legislate additional agreements that provide for environmental controls and protective labor laws.

He advocates modifying the US tax code to encourage more American factory owners to modernize and expand operations in the US rather than giving them tax breaks to move to overseas markets.

Clinton says he strongly supports the GATT talks. PEROT

He strongly opposes NAFTA because of its alleged unfairness to American workers. In the presidential debates, Perot said the most audible effect of the NAFTA will be a "giant sucking sound" of US jobs heading south, where wages are cheaper and regulations - such as costly environmental controls - are relatively lax. He says American workers cannot compete with Mexican laborers who earn $1 an hour and receive no heath-care or retirement benefits.

An advocate of "fair trade," Perot says all bilateral agreements should be reciprocal. If elected, he plans to "get all these folks who've got these one-way trade agreements that we've negotiated over the years and say, `Fellas, we'll take the same deal we gave you'." Perot points the finger at Japan, in particular.

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