ANDRES OPPENHEIMER Free trade scores victory in Iowa

The collapse of Democratic presidential hopeful Rep. Dick Gephardt's campaign last week in Iowa is drawing a collective sigh of relief among free-trade advocates across the hemisphere. It suggests that protectionist sentiment among U.S. voters may not be as strong as previously feared.
Indeed, the two Democratic Party presidential hopefuls who had the most support from anti-free-trade unions, Gephardt from Missouri and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, did poorly in Monday's Iowa presidential precinct caucuses.
Granted, Iowa Democrats may have stayed away from Gephardt and Dean for reasons other than their stands on trade, such as Gephardt's wooden personality or Dean's reportedly explosive temper. And, surely, whoever wins the Democratic nomination is likely to have a skeptical -- if not negative -- view of free trade, if for no other reason than to win union votes.
But the fact is that Gephardt, who was backed by blue-collar unions and made his anti-free-trade message the centerpiece of his campaign, got only 11 percent of the vote, and dropped out of the presidential race. And Dean, who was endorsed by white-collar unions, ended up with 18 percent of the vote, far less than what he was expected to get.
"The fact that the two leading proponents of the idea that trade is bad for Americans lost is a good sign," says Scott Otteman, a senior official with the pro-free trade National Association of Manufacturers. "It's too early to derive any definitive conclusion, but it may signal the declining influence of unions generally."
Pollster Sergio Bendixen, who does extensive work for the Democratic Party, agrees. "Gephardt was the most radical anti-free-trade candidate, and his defeat may have an impact on other candidates' rhetoric," he says.
One of the most interesting things about the Iowa race was that even in a farm state, Gephardt's protectionist message didn't catch on. When asked what issue mattered the most to them, Iowa Democrats placed U.S. trade policy and farm subsidies way behind the economy, education and health.
While a 29 percent plurality singled out the economy as their main concern, only 4 percent cited U.S. trade policy, and 2 percent U.S. farm policy and subsidies, according to an Edison Media Research-Mitofsky entrance poll at Monday's Iowa caucus.
Will Democratic voters react the same way in Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, and the Feb. 3 vote in South Carolina?
I posed that question to Carroll Doherty, editor of the Pew Research Center for the People & amp; the Press, who recently released a wider poll among Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Interestingly, the results were pretty similar in all three states. What's more, likely voters in both New Hampshire and South Carolina were slightly less anti-free trade than Iowans.
While 44 percent of Democratic voters in the three states agreed that free-trade deals are "a bad thing" for Americans and only 32 percent said it's a "good thing," the free-trade issue didn't rank high among their concerns, the Pew poll show.
Only 3 percent of those polled listed foreign policy and trade as their main concern, as opposed to 28 percent who picked the economy, 24 percent who mentioned the war with Iraq and 23 percent who cited healthcare reform.
"Democrats in all three states tend to have a negative view of free trade, but it doesn't matter a great deal to them," Doherty says.
Industrial states
My conclusion? Things may change later on in the Democratic primaries, as the race moves on to more industrial states such as Michigan on Feb. 7, or New York on March 2.
But, for now, it seems that Democrats may not turn protectionism into a major campaign issue, especially if Sen. John Kerry or Gen. Wesley Clark end up as the front-runners.
P.S.: Talking about free trade, did you notice that President Bush barely mentioned the issue in his State of the Union address Tuesday?
The only thing he said was, "My administration is promoting free and fair trade to open up new markets for America's entrepreneurs and manufacturers and farmers." By my count, he devoted seven seconds out of his 55-minute-long speech to free trade. Quite a contrast from his speeches abroad.
X Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.