World trade is poised to be the sleeper issue in this year's presidential and congressional elections.
The top Republican and Democratic presidential candidates say they support free trade, when they talk about it at all. So far the issue has taken a back seat to issues like education, health care and taxes.
But a third-party candidate, like Pat Buchanan, could ignite public opposition to trade and elevate it into an issue that affects the close contest for control of the House, analysts say.
"International trade could be a very significant issue this year," said John Zogby of Zogby International, a New York polling firm. Most Americans for years have believed "trade hurts more than it helps," he said.
The lack of debate on trade in the presidential elections has combined with public contentment arising from the robust economy to keep it from being an issue, analysts said.
But that could change if a third-party candidate emerges who can exploit latent public discontent with trade and foreign competition and capitalize on the public's willingness to use trade as a tool to punish wayward regimes, analysts say.
The candidate most commonly cited is commentator Pat Buchanan, who recently joined the independent Reform Party in a quest for its presidential nomination.
Recent Zogby polls show the Seattle protests in December against world trade turned the public's vague antipathy toward the issue into a potentially "high intensity" one that Mr. Buchanan or another well-known trade opponent, like Ralph Nader, could use to stage a successful third-party candidacy.
"Pat Buchanan could be a right-wing Republican and a left-wing Democrat at the same time on this issue," attracting a significant number of disaffected voters from hard-core trade opponents within each party, Mr. Zogby said.
"I don't know if it's a winning issue or not," he added, "but a third-party candidate doesn't have to win. All he has to do is shake things up and cause one side or the other to lose the election. That's the role of a third-party candidate.
"Trade is a wedge issue. It doesn't unite; it divides coalitions, and that's how Buchanan uses it," he said. The trade issue is "explosive," he said, because it is so complex that people can't understand the issues, and they form opinions that are "emotional, not rational."
A shake-up in the presidential election could extend to this year's congressional elections, where control of the House is up for grabs because of the Republicans' scant six-seat majority.
Labor unions and environmental groups - two core Democratic constituencies - are strongly opposed to globalization and a pact the Clinton administration reached with China to allow the Asian giant's entry into the World Trade Organization and make normal trade relations permanent between the countries.
That dislike is sure to put trade at the center of some of the closest races in the House and could help decide the outcome of the elections, Mr. Zogby said.
Trade could become a critical issue in close contests in the Midwest and South, where a large concentration of labor union members and born-again Christians, respectively, could throw their support behind anti-trade candidates, said Mike Dabadie of the Wirthlin Worldwide polling group.
But the trade issue cuts both ways, he said, noting that a Republican challenger to Rep. Lane Evans, Illinois Democrat, has been making headway in his rural district by promising to push for more access to foreign markets for the district's farmers.
House Republican aides conceded that trade could be a decisive issue in some close races. But they said so far the labor and environmental groups who made their voices heard in Seattle have failed to arouse a public groundswell of opposition to it. …