Protectionist Carolina

Posted: Mar 08, 2004 12:00 AM

RALEIGH, N.C. -- John Edwards returned to a hometown hero's welcome last Wednesday after losing 29 out of 30 contests, good enough for runner-up to John Kerry for the Democratic presidential nomination. While Sen. Edwards was given up for dead politically little more than a month ago, one public poll shows that today he would carry North Carolina against President Bush. More troubling to the Republicans than a transitory survey is what ails George W. Bush here.

It is not the war in Iraq, strongly supported in a state known for patriots and warriors. The GOP worries about the sea change here on international trade created by job losses blamed on foreign competition. Edwards' lurch toward protectionism at the end of his presidential campaign reflects the Democratic Party abandoning its heritage of free trade. But it is Republicans who have trouble coping with the new reality.

Republican politicians are chilled by a story making the rounds in the state's political circles. A delegation of North Carolina factory owners recently went to Washington to plead with the White House for relief from foreign competition. They returned complaining that the president's agents responded with the "free trade" mantra. Their verdict: They could no longer support Bush. North Carolina may be changing from a certain "red" state (carried by Bush with 56 percent in 2000) to a potential battleground with hopes for capturing Edwards' Senate seat diminishing. That would foretell a very difficult year nationwide for Republicans.

Johnny Edwards, a flashy multimillionaire trial lawyer new to politics, looked like an extinguished shooting star when this year began. He had dropped out of seemingly sure defeat for Senate re-election to bolster his flagging presidential campaign. Now, after the revival and end of his presidential candidacy, prominent Republicans fear he would win a second term if he re-entered the race (which nobody expects). That adds credence to claims by his supporters that Edwards on the ticket could hand Kerry the state's 15 electoral votes otherwise destined for Bush.

Although Edwards voted consistently against ratifying trade agreements, he did not trumpet the protectionist line until the final stages of his race for president. He lacked sufficient time for this theme to take root in economically depressed Ohio as he hoped, but Edwards the protectionist is well received back home.

The national economic recovery has lagged in North Carolina, which for years had enjoyed low unemployment and a vibrant economy. The classic case is the solidly Republican Hickory area, which in 1999 encountered a labor shortage but now suffers from manufacturing job losses in textiles, furniture and fiber optics. Foreign competition is blamed, and protectionist fever rages.

Erskine Bowles, a rich Charlotte investment banker who lost badly to Elizabeth Dole for the Senate in 2002 and now is trying to fill Edwards' seat, has felt this mood change. Bowles was no mere foot soldier in the globalist army. As President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, he managed passage of fast-track authority that enables congressional approval of international trade agreements.

Bowles is saying farewell to all that and plays the protectionist card with a vengeance. He has switched positions to oppose not only fast track but the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as well. Speaking to Democrats at Elkin near Winston-Salem recently, Bowles denied waffling and said he has just evolved. Putting the blame on China, he declared; "I will not vote for any new trade agreement."

That leaves Richard Burr, a five-term congressman from Winston-Salem with a solid conservative voting record, in a difficult position as Bowles' Republican opponent. He distanced himself from the White House by calling for the president to dismiss economic adviser Gregory Mankiw, whose report found merit in outsourcing American jobs. But Burr is not retreating from his record in support of Bush trade initiatives, and that worries his advisers in today's climate.

State Sen. Fred Smith, a rising new face in North Carolina Republican politics, told me the GOP will be saved here by conservative social values -- in particular, opposition to gay marriage. But many Republicans disagree as they ponder this question: Can a debate over homosexuals getting married in other states really trump China-bashing on jobs lost in North Carolina?