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Obama, Clinton in Dead Heat as Ohio, Texas Elections Draw Near

March 3, 2008 at 6:10 PM EST
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With the Ohio and Texas primaries tomorrow and polls showing both candidates in a dead heat, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are making their final pushes in these two critical states. Gwen Ifill reports from the campaign trail.
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JIM LEHRER: The words and actions today in the presidential campaign. Gwen Ifill reports.

GWEN IFILL: The presidential candidates offered their closing arguments today on the eve of potentially decisive nominating contests in Ohio, Texas, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Hillary Clinton rallied supporters at the University of Toledo, focusing on the issue voters there cite as their chief concern.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: We’ve got an economy that is not working for most Americans. It works fine if you’re wealthy and well-connected, but not if you’re a hard-working Ohioan who’s wondering, what are you doing?

You’re working as hard as you can. Health care costs are up; energy costs are up; gas prices are up. And you’re looking at your paycheck getting smaller and smaller by the time you pay for all the necessities. And you’re wondering whether anybody in the White House even knows what’s going on, aren’t you?

Does anybody really care about the hard-working people of Ohio?

AUDIENCE: You do!

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: I do. That’s exactly right. I do, because I know, I know that it’s the American middle class that built our country. It’s not rich people. It’s hard-working Ohioans every single year.

GWEN IFILL: Clinton has also seized on Canadian news reports suggesting one of Barack Obama’s economic advisers told officials from the Canadian government that Obama does not really intend to roll back NAFTA, the regionally unpopular trade deal.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: We are going after these trade agreements. I’ve said there should be a timeout on trade agreements. Every one of them should be examined to see whether or not they’re working the way they were intended.

This is not supposed to be a race to the bottom. We’re supposed to be lifting up other people around to have a better life.

And specifically on NAFTA, I don’t just criticize it. And I don’t have my campaign go tell a foreign government behind closed doors, “That’s just politics. Don’t pay any attention.” I tell you what I mean. I think we’ve got to renegotiate NAFTA.

And what I’m going to do is make it very clear: We need core labor and environmental standards. We need to end the provision that lets foreign companies sue to overturn protections for the environment and our workers here in the United States.

And we need to enforce all of these trade agreements. That’s why I’ve called for a trade prosecutor, somebody who will, day in and day out, say to these foreign countries, “Wait a minute. You’re not following the rules.”

Obama defends NAFTA position

GWEN IFILL: Obama's aides denied any meeting had taken place until the Associated Press published a memo written by an employee of the Canadian consulate. Obama adviser Austan Goolsbee, the memo said, did meet with officials at the Canadian consulate in Chicago.

The memo read, "Noting anxiety among many U.S. domestic audiences about the U.S. economic outlook, Goolsbee candidly acknowledged the protectionist sentiment that has emerged, particularly in the Midwest, during the primary campaign. He cautioned that this messaging should not be taken out of context and should be viewed as more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans."

Goolsbee said his remarks to the Canadians had been misinterpreted. "I certainly did not use that phrase in any way," he said in a statement.

Obama himself responded during an impromptu news conference in San Antonio, Texas, this afternoon.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Let me just be absolutely clear what happened. First of all, when I gave you that information, that was the information that I had at the time.

It turned out that the Canadian consulate in Chicago contacted one of my advisers, Austan Goolsbee, on their own initiative, invited him down to meet with them. He went down there as a courtesy.

And at some point, they started talking about trade and NAFTA. And the Canadian embassy has confirmed that he said exactly what I've been saying on the campaign trail, which is that I believe in trade, but that it is important for us to have labor standards and environmental standards that are enforceable and that I intend to obtain modifications and amendments to NAFTA that will make them enforceable.

So this notion that Senator Clinton is peddling, that somehow there's contradictions or winks and nods, has been disputed by all the parties involved.

What's not disputed is that Senator Clinton and her husband championed NAFTA, worked on behalf of NAFTA, called it a victory, called it good for America until she started running for president. That's indisputable; that's a fact.

And so I know that the Clinton campaign has been true to its word in employing a kitchen sink strategy. We've been catching, what, three, four things a day? This is one of them. It doesn't, I think, change the facts.

Fundraiser under scrutiny

GWEN IFILL: In another potential distraction, former Obama associate and Chicago fundraiser Tony Rezko went on trial today on extortion and money-laundering charges. Obama has returned $85,000 raised for him by Rezko and has not been implicated in the trial, but the Clinton campaign says Obama has left many questions unanswered.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: There have been no allegations that I did anything wrong. There have been no allegations that I in any way betrayed the public trust. There have been no allegations that I did him favors. We have disgorged all the money that we can identify that was raised by him. And so that is the extent of the story.

McCain outlines trade policies

GWEN IFILL: On the Republican side, candidate John McCain weighed in on the opposite side of the Democrats' NAFTA debate.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Could I reiterate again my support of NAFTA? I believe that there have been millions of jobs created. I believe that billions of dollars in increased trade between our countries has resulted.

And I believe that a unilateral renegotiation would have severest consequences for ourselves and our Canadian -- and relations between ourselves and our Canadian friends.

It has already been said that the Canadians may enter negotiations with China for sale of their oil. But it also sends a signal, if we unilaterally renegotiate, then the validity of other international agreements would be obviously brought into question, those agreements we have of whatever nature with other nations throughout the world.

If there's a desire for both nations, either Mexico and the United States or the United States and Canada or any combination of that, to renegotiate in a mutually acceptable fashion, that happens with treaties.

But for to unilaterally change the terms of an agreement, especially one as formidable and as long-lasting as NAFTA has been, negotiated by the Bush administration, signed into law by President Clinton, I think would have serious repercussions.

And I want to again repeat my absolute, confirmed belief and confidence in the American worker that, if we open markets throughout the world, the most productive and the most effective and the finest worker in the world, their products can compete anywhere in the world.

And I'm confident we can do that. With the spirit of innovation and technology and productive skills of American workers, we can compete.

And I do not believe nor will support protectionism. As a student of history, I've seen this nation's history being and our security being damaged by the practice of protectionism and isolationism.

Huckabee talks up Fair Tax

GWEN IFILL: McCain's major remaining opponent, Mike Huckabee, met with supporters in Dallas this morning and talked up one of his key issues, the Fair Tax.

FORMER GOV. MIKE HUCKABEE (R), Arkansas: Now, what kind of tax system is it that punishes a person for productivity? Look, folks, common sense tells us what you punish you get less of; what you reward you get more of.

The essence of a strong economy is that you reward productivity and work. You don't punish it. Our system is designed to punish the very people who are working.

GWEN IFILL: Clinton is planning to watch tomorrow night's results in Ohio. Obama, McCain and Huckabee will all be in Texas.