Amid a weakening U.S. economy, America's foreign-trade policy has become a contentious issue in the presidential race. Both major Democratic Party candidates say free-trade pacts have harmed American workers, while the presumed Republican nominee - as well as President Bush - are defending trade as necessary and economically beneficial. From Washington, VOA's Michael Bowman reports.

America's economy has undergone a transformation in recent decades, with millions of manufacturing jobs transferred overseas. At the same time, much of the job growth recorded in the United States has come in the service sector, often at lower wages and with fewer benefits than the manufacturing jobs that once formed the backbone of the U.S. economy.

Despite this trend, U.S. gross domestic product has nearly tripled during the past 20 years, with unemployment rates that rarely rise above six percent. But America's strong overall economic performance does not appear to have boosted the public's perceptions of the benefits of trade.

Recent polls show declining support for pacts such as the North American Free Trade Agreement. The agreement, known as NAFTA, was negotiated in the 1990s between the United States, Canada and Mexico. It is particularly unpopular in states like Ohio that have seen entire industries relocate overseas.

At a recent Democratic presidential debate in Ohio, Illinois Senator Barack Obama said trade pacts like NAFTA have harmed American workers and their communities.

"If you travel through Youngstown [Ohio] and you travel through communities in my home state of Illinois, you will see entire cities that have been devastated as a consequence of trade agreements that were not adequately structured to make sure that U.S. workers have a fair deal," said Senator Obama.

Obama stressed he is not anti-trade, but wants to make sure that future trade pacts include labor, safety and environmental standards to protect American workers and consumers.

His Democratic rival, New York Senator Hillary Clinton, had a similar message.

"I have seen the factories close and move," said Senator Clinton. "We need to have a plan to fix NAFTA. I would immediately have a trade time out. [temporary halt]"

But if Democrats are sounding protectionist themes, not so Republicans. The presumed Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Senator John McCain, recently said that NAFTA has created jobs in the United States, and that erecting trade barriers would be self-defeating.

Thursday, President Bush echoed those words.

"Free trade is essential to the formation of high-paying quality jobs," said President Bush.

Mr. Bush added that dismantling or rejecting trade pacts would anger and alienate U.S. allies.

In recent years, the U.S. Congress has approved free-trade deals with Central American nations and Peru. Approval is pending for similar pacts with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.

Stu Rothenberg, who publishes a political newsletter in Washington, says in the current political climate, with a weakened U.S. economy, getting the Democratically-controlled Congress to approve further trade deals will be difficult.

"Democrats believe that the evolution of the U.S. economy is a function of jobs going overseas, and they regard the loss of those [manufacturing] jobs as a huge problem for the country," said Stu Rothenberg. "The way they often put it is that high-paid, skilled manufacturing jobs go overseas, and in place we get more people serving hamburgers at McDonalds."

Rotherberg says, on the whole, Americans have grown wary of free trade. But he is quick to add that the sentiment is not uniform. He notes that in U.S. regions that depend on exports, especially in agriculture, voters tend to reject protectionism.

"[In] many Midwest states, people in Kansas and Nebraska tend to be very [supportive of] free trade, because exporting U.S. agricultural products is absolutely crucial to them," he said.

Rothenberg notes that many of the states where trade is contentious issue - like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania - are so-called "swing states" in the presidential race, where neither party can automatically assume victory.

In 2004, George Bush's win in Ohio gave him the electoral votes he needed to surpass his Democratic rival, John Kerry, and win re-election. Ohio is certain to be a major target for the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, and if the current debate among candidates is any indication, trade will remain a central campaign issue in the months ahead.