TRAILING in the battle for public opinion, the White House makes a daring gamble tonight when Vice President Al Gore Jr. confronts Ross Perot on the merits of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The nationwide debate, on CNN's ``Larry King Live,'' will ultimately revolve around one issue: Will the controversial trade pact, known as NAFTA, create good-paying jobs in the United States? Or will many of the best American jobs migrate south of the border in search of cheap wages?
Many renowned economists argue that NAFTA is a ``win-win'' agreement for the United States. They say it will save American jobs. Opponents, led by Mr. Perot and labor unions, claim the lure of $1-an-hour wages and lax environmental enforcement in Mexico will suck millions of jobs out of the US.
As Congress rushes toward a vote Nov. 17, a sense of urgency can be felt at the White House. President Clinton and Mr. Gore have only days to turn around 30 to 40 votes in the House of Representatives.
The stakes are significant. NAFTA is the linchpin of White House economic and trade strategy for the 1990s. Passage would put pressure on both Japan and Europe to open their markets to American goods. It could also lead eventually to a free-market trading zone throughout the Western Hemisphere.
A loss would set back trade prospects, undercut Clinton economic strategy, and cause potential harm to the president's national and international prestige.
The president says pro-NAFTA forces are ``making rapid progress'' toward a victory in the House. But opponents, led by House majority leader Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, claim they are within a few votes of killing the historic agreement.
Ironically, the president's own party most threatens the treaty. Only 81 of 258 House Democrats are currently in support. To win, the White House figures it needs 100 Democratic votes and 118 Republican votes in the House.
Senate minority leader Robert Dole (R) of Kansas, a Clinton ally in the NAFTA fight, says a loss would not only hurt America's economy, but could be ``devastating'' to the president's political standing.
Mr. Clinton blames labor unions for scaring off Democratic support. In a nationally televised interview, he accused the unions of using ``roughshod, muscle-bound tactics'' by promising political retaliation against congressmen who support NAFTA.
Threatened with a loss, the White House has challenged NAFTA's most outspoken foe, Mr. Perot, to tonight's high-stakes debate.
Senator Dole, ordinarily an implacable foe of Clinton policies, frets that the Gore-Perot shootout could be ``a big mistake'' for NAFTA's prospects. Republican political strategist Ed Rollins, another NAFTA ally, agrees. He explains: ``Ross Perot will kill Gore.... This is mud wrestling, and nobody beats this guy at mud wrestling.''
The debate is expected to address several questions:
* Will NAFTA create jobs? Perot predicts ``a giant sucking sound'' as million of US jobs are lost to Mexico. Clinton claims the deal would create 200,000 new US jobs by 1995. Most experts say some jobs would be lost, some would be added, but the US would have a small net gain.
* Will Japan or Germany exploit a NAFTA defeat? Clinton claims Japan would rush into Mexico with new factories and a trade deal if the US balks. Perot laughs at that, saying Japan really hopes that NAFTA passes so it can build Mexican factories and export to the US duty-free.
* Will NAFTA help the environment? This issue splits even the experts. Some say NAFTA will bring greater prosperity to Mexico, and with prosperity will come a cleaner environment. Opponents say NAFTA allows US companies to flee strict American regulations, yet still sell their products in the US.
* Will NAFTA improve US-Mexico ties? Proponents argue that NAFTA will speed Mexico toward greater democracy, including improved workers' rights. Opponents say democracy and labor union rights should precede a trade deal.
NAFTA, which incorporates Mexico, Canada, and the US, would create the largest free-trade block in the world with approximately 360 million people.
Perot compares NAFTA to well-advertised, but poor-tasting dog food. The American people just won't swallow it, despite a $30 million public relations campaign by Mexico and another $30 million TV blitz by corporate America, he says.
Clinton says NAFTA will eventually lead to something even bigger, a trade pact ``with the rest of Latin America so that we can establish a 700 million person trading block. That's real jobs for America.''