ABC News’ Rick Klein Reports: Former senator John Edwards is set to pounce on his rivals’ support of a free-trade deal with Peru, as he seeks to exploit an opening on an issue that speaks to growing concerns about the economy and the impact of globalization.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said in a statement released Thursday night that she would support the Bush administration’s trade agreement, though she is opposing pending agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama.
"It has very strong labor and environmental protections," Clinton said in the statement, referring to the Peru pact. "This agreement makes meaningful progress on advancing workers’ rights, and also levels the playing field for American workers."
Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., has also said he plans to vote for the Peru deal when it comes to the Senate floor as soon as next week.
But Edwards, D-N.C., is fiercely opposing the deal. Friday afternoon in Iowa, he plans to criticize Clinton in particular for supporting it, casting the measure as a "flawed trade deal that expands the NAFTA model," a campaign official tells ABC News.
The Peru pact has split the Democratic Party, reviving memories of President Bill Clinton’s battle to pass NAFTA more than a decade ago. On Thursday, 109 House Democrats voted with the vast majority of Republicans to approve the Peru deal, while 116 Democrats voted no.
Trade has long been a hot-button issue among Iowa caucus-goers; many observers believe Dick Gephardt won the 1988 Iowa caucuses in part based on his opposition to free-trade agreements. Two of Iowa’s three Democratic House members came out against the Peru pact, and both New Hampshire Democrats voted no.
A March Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found that 54 percent of Democratic voters believe free-trade agreements have hurt the United States, while 21 percent said they have helped.
David Sirota, a Democratic strategist and commentator, said Clinton and Obama have created an opening for Edwards by supporting the Peru deal. With spiraling oil prices, plant closings in Iowa, and economic insecurities related to the housing market, free-trade deals are growing less popular among Democrats, he said.
"I’m pretty stunned politically that Clinton is doing this," Sirota said. "The word ‘NAFTA’ has become a symbol for, ‘You are selling me out.’ Hillary Clinton is easy to portray as representing sort of the Wall Street status quo."
According to campaign-finance data, Clinton’s campaign has received at least $35,900 from individuals hired to lobby on behalf of the Peru Free Trade Agreement. Those lobbyists work for major corporations including Wal-Mart, Citigroup, and Coca-Cola — companies that generally support free trade as a means to open up more markets for their products.
Edwards and Obama do not accept contributions from registered federal lobbyists.
Though her husband fought hard to get NAFTA approved by the Democratic-controlled Congress in 1993, Sen. Clinton has not been as quick to support free-trade deals. She voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement — patterned on NAFTA — in 2005.
And as a candidate this year, she has expressed some disappointment in NAFTA’s impact on the US economy, and has said she would reevaluate it as president.
UPDATE: Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., also has come out against the pact. "It’s disappointing that Senators Clinton and Obama, in supporting this agreement, would support more of the same, which will only add to our deficit, taking jobs away from hardworking Americans and shipping them elsewhere," he said in a statement.
A senior adviser to the Obama campaign, meanwhile, said the senator is supporting the Peru deal because it has enforcement mechanisms to ensure labor and environmental standards. The adviser also dismissed comparisons to NAFTA, saying that the minuscule impact of Peruvian-American trade makes it "silly" to equate the pacts.
"This is an almost totally symbolic issue," the adviser said. "There’s no way you can claim this has anything like the impact of NAFTA."