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Bentsen Blasts U.S. Response to Trade Assault

Times Staff Writer

Stumping in the industrial Midwest, Democratic vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen on Friday accused the Reagan Administration of cowing in the face of a trade assault from abroad.

“They didn’t do anything,” Bentsen said mockingly to a crowd of union workers at the Caterpillar truck factory here. “They turned the other cheek. And when other countries saw we didn’t react, they dumped their products in our country.”

Bentsen also ridiculed the Administration’s most notable attempt to use trade as a weapon, describing as “dumb” the 1982 embargo on selling equipment to the Soviet Union for a natural gas pipeline in Europe.

That effort backfired, wounding U.S. manufacturers like Caterpillar as the Soviets turned to their foreign competitors and built the pipeline anyway. “A basic lesson,” Bentsen said, “don’t you ever put an embargo on another country when they hurt you more than you hurt them.”

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Economic Nationalism

The Texas senator evokes the spirit of economic nationalism far more than Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis does, and he has sounded the theme with greater vehemence in recent days in appeals to union audiences in such trade-dependent places as Illinois, which he described as a must-win state for the Democrats.

“I don’t think it’s below a President or a vice president to push our products,” Bentsen said, “and that includes Caterpillar.”

With the other candidates staying home, the Decatur rally filled the day’s demand for television visuals. The factory’s “Building D” was transformed overnight into a vivid cinematic set, highlighted by enormous yellow trucks draped in red, white and blue.

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After the speech, Bentsen climbed into the driver’s seat of a 35-ton earthmover, firing its engine and pulling the lever that tilted its dumping bin slowly toward vertical.

“We’ve got some Caterpillar bulldozers down on the ranch in Texas,” Bentsen told the overall-clad workers.

Show Little Enthusiasm

The crowd responded with little enthusiasm, but workers interviewed said they believed most of their 2,900 United Auto Workers colleagues at the plant would remain loyal to the Democrats.

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“You’d never believe how many votes Reagan could get out of that plant,” said Bill Martin, a 24-year Caterpillar veteran who said he would vote for Bush. “Reagan could break through that union barrier. I don’t think Bush can.”

Later, Bentsen visited Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where he attracted more than 2,000 people, one of the biggest crowds of his campaign.

A rowdy pro-Bush group chanted “boring, boring” as Bentsen delivered his speech, but the senator silenced his tormentors with a characteristically courtly jab.

“We’re going to start talking about education,” Bentsen said, “because that group over there needs education.”

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