John McCain, shown here speaking to the National Sheriffs' Association in Indianapolis, landed in Colombia Tuesday to promote free trade. (AP Photo)
John McCain walked into a minefield of criticism with his free-trade promoting trip to Colombia and Mexico Tuesday, but is attempting to use the visit to portray his Democratic rival as an isolationist and question his trustworthiness.
McCain arrived in Cartagena, Colombia, on Tuesday evening for meetings with President Alvaro Uribe and several cabinet members. He is expected to use his three-day trip abroad to highlight free trade, as well as discuss illegal immigration and other issues affecting Latin America and the United States.
The presumptive Republican nominee was hammered by Barack Obama’s supporters Tuesday for disregarding American workers in favor of foreign trade deals.
But McCain says he cannot give up his advocacy of free trade because that would be a “betrayal of trust,” and told reporters on the plane to Colombia Tuesday that Obama does not demonstrate the same political consistency.
“I don’t switch my position depending on what audience or what time it is in the electoral calendar,” McCain said. “I think America wants a leader they can trust and have confidence in and I believe that they will more and more be aware Senator Obama has switched his position on fundamental issues — not really cosmetic issues but fundamental issues.”
The presumptive Republican nominee has increasingly tried to criticize Obama on the trust factor.
He frequently charges that Obama betrayed public trust by reversing his position to opt out of public financing, but has lately tried to use Obama’s stance on the North American Free Trade Agreement to suggest he is more trustworthy than Obama.
As McCain embarked for Colombia, his campaign also released a Web video in which he described free trade as a promise America has to keep.
“We can’t go back on our word on free trade promises with Mexico, Canada, Central America or anyone else,” McCain said in the video, adding that deals like the pending Colombia Free Trade Agreement fuel the economies in both North and South America.
McCain criticized Obama Monday for saying he’d renegotiate NAFTA and for opposing the Colombia trade plan.
“I don’t understand how you can be for free trade and be against every free trade agreement,” McCain said.
McCain said he must convince Americans that “protectionism and isolationism” could be harmful.
McCain’s campaign has also teased Obama over reports that he’s amending his position on NAFTA. Obama recently told Fortune magazine that “Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified,” and that he doesn’t want to do anything “unilaterally” with the trade agreement.
But Obama on Tuesday reiterated his criticism of NAFTA and pledged to meet with Canadian and Mexican officials to renegotiate it.
“NAFTA lacked the labor and environmental provisions that were enforceable, that would ensure not only free but also fair trade,” he said. “So I will be sitting down with the president of Mexico and the prime minister of Canada and look to strengthen our trade provisions.”
His supporters, meanwhile, slammed McCain for the trip. The Republican presidential hopeful embarked for South America after a campaign swing through Indiana and Pennsylvania, two states hard hit by the loss of manufacturing jobs due in part to trade agreements like NAFTA.
“He’s hopping on a plane and going to Colombia and Mexico to talk about how much our trade agreements are going to help those countries rather than talking about what we can do to help this country,” United Auto Workers vice president Terry Thurman said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “I find it no surprise that he’s gonna go to Mexico to talk (about) how great NAFTA is, because he is certainly not gonna find much support for it in the Hoosier State.”
The Teamsters union, which is supporting Obama, also released an ad that accused McCain of “plotting with government leaders to shove a so-called free trade agreement down the throats of the American public.”
The ad suggested Uribe’s government was responsible for the deaths of union leaders in Colombia, and declared, “The United States shouldn’t be dealing with regimes that torture and kill its citizens.”
Violence is a key concern in Washington with the Colombian trade agreement, which has stalled in Congress. The House blocked a vote over issues that include violence against labor activists in the country.
But McCain defends Uribe and says he rescued Colombia from becoming a “failed state.” He only indirectly criticizes the government’s human rights record. While he said anyone perpetuating human rights abuses in the country should be arrested and tried, he insisted the country’s struggle with the issue was no justification for blocking the proposed agreement.
In Mexico City, he plans to address illegal immigration — an emotional issue both for Hispanic voters and many conservatives.
McCain co-sponsored Senate legislation that would have allowed illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S., work and apply to become legal residents after learning English, paying fines and back taxes, and clearing a background check. The measure failed last year and McCain since has talked primarily about the importance of boosting border security, and less so about a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally.
In a speech last Saturday to elected Latino officials, McCain pledged that the issue will be “my top priority yesterday, today and tomorrow.”
Besides immigration, McCain said he would congratulate the leaders of both Mexico and Canada for their efforts to wipe out drug cartels, but that he also would press them to step up their efforts.
“I think it’s important our friends and neighbors understand our commitment to them. What happens in Colombia and Mexico is very important to the future of America,” he said.
FOX News’ Carl Cameron and Mosheh Oinounou and The Associated Press contributed to this report.