The Democratic candidates vying to unseat President Bush next year quickly seized on his decision Thursday to lift tariffs on steel imports, seeing it as an issue that will give them a political edge in key steel-producing states.
Party strategists said rescinding the tariffs had jeopardized Bush’s standing in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia -- the country’s top steel-producing states and likely battlegrounds in the 2004 presidential election. Combined, the states account for 46 electoral votes.
In the 2000 election, Bush carried Ohio by about 4 percentage points and West Virginia by about 6 percentage points. He lost Pennsylvania by about 4 percentage points. His decision to end the 30% tariffs on some foreign steel products that he imposed in March 2002 is sure to rankle steelworkers in each of the states, Democrats say.
“The president, unfortunately for him, made a major blunder,” said Bill Carrick, a strategist for Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt’s presidential campaign. “He didn’t have the guts to stick with his original position. I think it’s going to leave an awful bitter taste in people’s mouths.”
Some political analysts cautioned that Democrats were overestimating the potential of one issue to influence the outcome of the presidential contest in the steel-producing states. They noted that Bush’s stances on gun control, abortion and gay rights still resonate with socially conservative blue-collar voters in the region. And since becoming president, Bush has visited each of the states several times.
“Bush has simply spent a lot of time in these states, and the social issues still work to his advantage,” said John J. Pitney Jr., professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a former GOP operative.
But Democrats were confident Bush’s move had given them an opening.
“I think it’s going to provide plenty of ammunition to go after Bush,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who works for Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry’s presidential campaign. “Here you have a situation where Bush is essentially agreeing to the exportation of more U.S. manufacturing jobs. That hurts.”
Even as they criticized Bush’s handling of the tariffs, however, the top candidates seeking the Democratic nomination split over their approach to trade, highlighting the fault lines in the party on the issue.
Gephardt and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who have won the most endorsements from organized labor, voiced the strongest support for keeping the tariffs. Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman is opposed to the tariffs, but argues that Bush could have done more to help the domestic steel industry. Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who has not run for office before, avoided taking a specific stance on the tariffs.
Some analysts, meanwhile, warned that the issue won’t necessarily benefit Democrats without some effort on their part.
“It may help somewhat, but they’ve got to translate it into some kind of meaningful message,” said Ed Sarpolus, an independent pollster in Lansing, Mich. “They need to talk about what this means to union workers’ pocketbooks and their families. They can’t just say, ‘Bush overturned the tariffs; vote for me.’ ”
Steel tariffs also present a complicated political calculation for Democrats.
In Michigan, another expected political battleground, the auto industry has vehemently protested the tariffs, which they said led to higher costs and layoffs.
“This is the type of issue that is very divisive,” said Edward Gresser, trade policy director at the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Democratic think tank. “People in the steel industry are very vocally for it, and the auto industry is very vocally against it.”
So for the most part, the Democratic candidates kept their criticism of Bush’s decision focused more broadly on what they said was the president’s failure to protect industries hurt by free trade.
“President Bush still has no strategy to help the 2.6 million manufacturing workers who have lost their jobs,” Clark said in a statement. “We need a real strategy to help our manufacturing communities.”
But a spokesman would not say whether Clark supported or opposed steel tariffs.
Lieberman suggested that Bush should have done more to push foreign steel competitors into fairer trade practices, among other measures.
“He put politics first when he imposed the tariffs, and now he’s been forced to back-flip when confronted by life in the real world,” Lieberman said in a statement.
Gephardt, who has been endorsed by United Steelworkers of America, argued that Bush should have asked the International Trade Commission to review whether the tariffs could be restructured in a way that would address objections raised by the World Trade Organization.
“The president’s decision to prematurely lift the tariffs on steel imports severely undermines the recovery of the U.S. steel industry from decades of unfair trade practices that have jeopardized the viability of a vital domestic industry,” he said in a statement.
Dean joined him in criticizing Bush’s trade policies.
“Despite what President Bush may claim, the steel industry needs additional breathing room to get back on its feet,” Dean said. “But the tariffs are a short-term solution to a larger problem: this administration’s broken trade policy. Our trade agreements need to benefit workers, not just big multinational corporations.”
Dean, Kerry and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards all supported lowering trade barriers in the past, but now say trade agreements need more worker and environmental protections.
Earlier this week, Kerry voiced support for maintaining the steel tariffs, saying, “Bush is cutting and running from his commitments to help working Americans.”
Edwards did not specify his position on the steel tariffs, but took Bush to task for not protecting jobs.
“This president has done virtually nothing to protect American manufacturing jobs -- not steel manufacturing jobs in Pennsylvania, not steel consuming jobs in Michigan, not textile jobs in North and South Carolina,” he said.
Times staff writer Mark Z. Barabak contributed to this report.