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Move over, Enron. Wal-Mart is the new punching bag.

In the run-up to elections, America's top employer takes it on the chin for driving US jobs abroad and trampling workers at home. Should it share the blame?

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The call went out from the White House soon after Sept. 11, and tickled the ears of the shopping-aisle rank and file. "Consume," was the message, "and show capitalism to be unbowed." Plenty of Americans went out and spent money, urged on by a new call as the holidays neared.

One big beneficiary: Wal-Mart.

That year, the discounter rang up $1.25 billion on the day after Thanksgiving, setting a single-day record for retail sales that it has since eclipsed, and adding to its list of superlatives. It's now the world's largest corporation in terms of sales - nearing $250 billion a year, comparable to the economy of Sweden. It is America's largest private employer. Its profit? Up a healthy 8.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2003, the company reported Thursday.

But juggernauts invite scrutiny, and Wal-Mart has felt searing lights from many angles - most recently the very public forum of a US presidential campaign.

Outlining the travails of American workers, several Democratic candidates have been piling on a scorn that previously seemed reserved for Enron. And earlier this month, US Rep. George Miller (D) of California issued a report citing the "hidden price" to US taxpayers of what it calls the inadequate wages and benefits of many in Wal-Mart's workforce.

So does Wal-Mart deserve its punching-bag status?

"It's a complex issue," says economist Dale Neef, author of "Managing Corporate Reputation and Risk." "It's almost more about its size - and its effectiveness" at maximizing profit.

Beloved by many consumers, respected by some business strategists, vilified by labor groups and antiglobalization activists, Wal-Mart has become "the greatest business enigma of our time," says Richard Hastings, retail-sector analyst for Bernard Sands, an advisory firm in New York.

Consider the track record on which Wal-Mart's reputation is built.


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