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Transfer of American Jobs Overseas Becomes Critical Election Issue

The transfer of American jobs overseas to cut the cost of doing business has emerged as a key issue in the battle for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination between Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

For David Bevard of Galesburg, Illinois, the concern over lost jobs is not an abstract issue.

He has worked for 30 years making refrigerators for the Maytag Corporation and now faces the prospect of having to look for a new job just as he was approaching retirement.

"We have always believed that if you worked hard, paid your dues, played by the rules and produced a quality product that you would get rewarded in the end," he said. "Instead, our reward is that Maytag is taking the 1,600 jobs out of Galesburg [Illinois] and moving them to Reynosa, Mexico, and South Korea. This is going to be devastating to our community of 34,000 people and, quite frankly, we are not alone."

Mr. Bevard spoke at a rally this week sponsored by the AFL-CIO, the country's largest federation of labor unions, representing more than 13 million workers. The union organization now backs Senator John Kerry for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

The concern over lost jobs has become a driving issue in the Democratic race and may have helped Senator John Edwards to a stronger than expected second place finish in Tuesday's Wisconsin primary.

Senator Edwards says he has been less supportive of free trade deals than his rival, Senator Kerry, and he now focuses on the job loss issue in his campaign speeches.

"We have shipped more than a million good jobs overseas in a race for cheaper labor," said John Edwards. "I don't know if you heard this, but the administration - the White House - said about two weeks ago that the outsourcing of American jobs is a good thing. What planet do these people live on? Let me tell you what would be a good thing is to outsource this administration!"

For his part, Senator Kerry is now critical of free trade agreements and says future agreements should include tougher job and environmental protections.

The job loss issue has become a potential weakness for President Bush as he gears up his re-election campaign. The president's difficulties on the issue were compounded recently when the chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, Gregory Mankiw, said the outsourcing or transfer of U.S. jobs overseas was a good thing for the U.S. economy.

Jack Pitney is a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in Los Angeles. He says the comment amounted to a political stumble for the White House.

"Well, from the standpoint of strict economics you could make that case," he said. "But politically, that was a terribly damaging statement to make and naturally the Democrats are taking advantage of it."

Democrats are seizing on the issue, charging the president is responsible for the loss of 2.7 million jobs since he took office in 2001.

But the president is fighting back, arguing that his massive tax cut plan will help U.S. businesses create new jobs.

"And if you are interested in job creation, why not focus on the job creators? So the tax relief was passed not only to help individuals but to help our small business sector," said President Bush.

The job loss issue is one reason the president's approval ratings may be dropping in public opinion polls. A recent survey by USA Today, the Cable News Network and the Gallup Poll found that if the election were held today, the president would lose by a double-digit margin to either Senator Kerry or Senator Edwards.

But the chairman of the president's re-election campaign, former Montana Governor Marc Racicot, says that poll also showed that most Americans regard President Bush as a strong leader.

"But if you take a look at the same polls, you find very, very favorable ratings for the president on his capacity to lead and about him caring about the American people," he said.

Voters in the Democratic primaries and caucuses have consistently ranked jobs and the economy as one of their top concerns, and most political experts predict it will be a crucial issue in the November election.

William Schneider is an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington.

"The biggest single issue that the voters have put on this agenda this year is not the Iraq War," said William Schneider. "[Former Vermont Governor Howard] Dean tried to make an issue out of the Iraq War. It didn't work even among Democrats. It couldn't divide the Democratic Party. But the jobs issue is central and that is, of course, one of the key factors in Bush's problems, not simply Iraq but primarily the fact that somewhere over two million jobs have been lost."

But many experts also predict that American voters will be just as concerned with national security in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, an issue which many of them believe favors President Bush.