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NAFTA flap comes at a bad time for Barack Obama

March 3, 2008 | 11:20 am

This is NOT the way Barack Obama's campaign wanted the final hours before Tuesday's big votes to play out, at least in Ohio.

A "he-said, he-said" dispute that had been somewhat under the radar became a dominant news story after the Associated Press obtained a memo in which an official at Canada's consulate in Chicago asserts that an Obama advisor, during a recent meeting, basically told the Canadians that the candidate has been blowing smoke in trashing NAFTA.

The Obama counselor, University of Chicago economics professor Austan Goolsbee, hotly denies the summary of his meeting that was penned by Joseph DeMora, saying of the memo's key passage: "That's this guy's language. He's not quoting me."

Regardless, it's hard to see how this flap gives Obama much chance to reverse what the most recent polling indicates is a discernible shift in Hillary Clinton's direction in Ohio (see here and here).

Here's what DeMora wrote that is causing the furor:

"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 insists DeMora put words in his mouth, telling the AP: "This thing about 'it's more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans,' I certainly did not use that phrase in any way."

Here's the entire AP story.

[UPDATE -- The Canadian Embassy in Washington just issued the following statement: "The Canadian Embassy and our Consulates General regularly contact those involved in all of the Presidential campaigns and, periodically, report on these contacts to interested officials. In the recent report produced by the Consulate General in Chicago, there was no intention to convey, in any way, that Senator Obama and his campaign team were taking a different position in public from views expressed in private, including about NAFTA. We deeply regret any inference that may have been drawn to that effect.]

The Clinton campaign, which had been trying to attract more attention ...

to Goolsbee's comments to the Canadians since the story began simmering last week, was quick to react today.

The Clinton press shop, with the aim of raising credibility questions about her rival, issued a release that provided (in excruciating detail) the various responses over the last few days from the Obama camp about the NAFTA matter.

Clinton herself was more concise in commenting on it this morning, saying, "I don’t think people should come to Ohio and tell the people of Ohio one thing and then have your campaign tell a foreign government something else behind closed doors. That’s the kind of difference between talk and action and that I’ve been pointing out in this campaign."

You can read more about her comments here.

Some of her chief aides, meanwhile, have taken to referring to the brouhaha as "NAFTA-gate."

Goolsbee, according to his resume, was a renowned member of debate teams as a student. He also has coached debate squads at M.I.T. and the University of Chicago. This was not, however, the type of rhetorical battle that either he or Obama would want at this point in the campaign.

-- Don Frederick