As he stood outside a shuttered steel-fabrication plant here Tuesday, Republican John McCain said "education and training" and not "the siren song of protectionism" would help revive economically troubled areas such as Ohio's Mahoning Valley.
McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, spent the second day of his "It's Time for Action Tour" — aimed at areas often ignored by his party's candidates — bucking the opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) expressed by labor unions that dominate Youngstown's politics.
While he defended free trade during a town hall meeting, McCain said other nations have violated the principle at the United States' expense.
"We have to insist on fair and open competition," McCain told a man who protested Chinese "dumping" of cheap steel.
Once one of the nation's steel-making capitals, all of Youngstown's steel plants are closed after 30 years of changes in the industry. Voters in Youngstown's Mahoning County usually back Democrats; in 2004, they gave Democrat John Kerry 63% of their votes against President Bush.
Groups of Ohio Democrats greeted McCain to Youngstown State University with a demonstration featuring placards that sought to link McCain to the unpopular Bush.
"No More Four Years," one sign read.
Another read: "McSame."
At the forum, many agreed with the Democrats' assessment of NAFTA. A former AFL-CIO leader, Jack O'Connell, informed McCain that NAFTA is a four-letter word.
McCain cut through the tension with a joke.
"Jack, I am prone on occasion to make mistakes, but the last time I checked, NAFTA is five letters," he said, laughing with the crowd.
McCain told the crowd that NAFTA's benefits outweighed the costs.
"I believe the overall result of NAFTA has been an increase in economic benefits to our country," he said.
Doug Kelly, executive director of the Ohio Democratic Party, said Ohio has lost 200,000 manufacturing jobs since Bush took office, and McCain offers only "four more years of the same failed trade and economic policies."
McCain planned later to attend a fundraiser in the northwestern Ohio city of Toledo.
In the coming weeks, McCain is planning major policy speeches on such domestic issues as education and health care.
No Republican has been elected president without winning Ohio.
As the two Democratic candidates for president — Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois — finished campaigning in neighboring Pennsylvania, McCain avoided speculating about which candidate he would face in the fall.
Contributing: Associated Press