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Rollins Says Key to NAFTA Is Congress, Not TV Debate

THE White House has made a big mistake in trying to take on Ross Perot in the battle to save the North American Free Trade Agreement, says Ed Rollins, a Republican political strategist who briefly advised Mr. Perot during last year's presidential campaign.

White House strategists say one motive for having Vice President

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Al Gore Jr. debate Perot Nov. 9 on ``Larry King Live'' was to embarrass Perot, but that's ``almost impossible,'' Mr. Rollins told a Monitor breakfast Nov. 9.

``It's an inside game.... It's almost like the old contra fights of the Reagan days,'' says Rollins, referring to the effort in the '80s to get Congress to fund the Nicaraguan resistance.

``You won those on the Hill. You don't win those out in the country. I think the danger in this one is you have now moved [Perot] back to the forefront. He was a week ago running around yelling and screaming about the conspiracies of the networks to keep him off television. He's now back.''

The bottom line, says Rollins, is that Perot does not control members of Congress, who now are scheduled to vote on NAFTA on Nov. 17.

Vice President Gore should have been debating Reps. Richard Gephardt of Missouri or David Bonior of Michigan, the No. 2 and No. 3 Democrats in the House, or Lane Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO, all vocal opponents of NAFTA, says Rollins.

``Clearly the Democrats don't want to have an intramural fight, but that's what it's all about,'' Rollins says of the situation.

``I think NAFTA's very critical to him [President Clinton] both domestically and internationally. It's the last big fight of this year. And I think if he fails, now that he has gone all out on it ... my sense is it is a big blow,'' says Rollins.

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``The danger this president faces is he's becoming a congressional relations officer. When he calls the same members of Congress, say, eight or 10 times, the stories I hear are members saying, `Oh, it's just the president again, I don't want to take his call.'

``I just can't visualize Lyndon Johnson not being able to get 15 or 20 votes. Lyndon Johnson would line somebody up and say, `Look, the bottom line is this: I'm the president, I'm the leader of your party, I need this vote. For the next three years, you're my friend or you're my enemy.''

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