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Backing trade deals haunts Hillary Clinton in Ohio

Hillary Clinton waved after addressing a rally Saturday in Youngstown, Ohio.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Hillary Clinton waved after addressing a rally Saturday in Youngstown, Ohio.

WASHINGTON — Hoping to avoid a repeat of her surprising loss last week in Michigan, Hillary Clinton is fighting headwinds over international trade before Tuesday’s vote in Ohio, another state where trade pacts are blamed for damaging the economy.

Clinton opposes President Obama’s proposed Pacific Rim trade agreement, but she previously supported it as a “gold standard” when she was secretary of state and didn’t register her objections until last fall. Her previous support of that deal and other trade agreements has generated strong distrust among voters in the Rust Belt.

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“These trade deals are killing us. And she’s supported trade deals,” said George Husty III, a 68-year-old millwright at US Steel in Lorain, Ohio.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who has made opposition to international trade agreements a centerpiece of his campaign, captured greater support from white working-class voters in Michigan last Tuesday, fueling his upset win there.

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Voters will cast ballots in the Ohio Democratic primary contest on Tuesday, the same day residents of Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, and Missouri also go to the polls. Opinion surveys show Clinton with a healthy lead in Ohio, but they said the same thing in Michigan last week, and they were wrong.

Clinton campaigned in Youngstown with Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown over the weekend and denounced Obama’s proposed trade pact as insufficient to protect American auto workers. She has said she switched from supporting the pact to opposing it after reading newly negotiated details.

‘‘When I saw what was in it, it was clear to me there were too many loopholes, too many opportunities for folks to be taken advantage of,’’ Clinton said at a Saturday campaign appearance at a precision manufacturing firm.

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In contrast to the rules in the Republican contest, which makes Ohio a winner-take-all-state, Democrats award Ohio delegates proportionally. That means Clinton could lose the state narrowly and still get a large share of delegates, as she did in Michigan, where Sanders got 67 but Clinton got 60.

Still, losing another crucial swing state in the Upper Midwest would be a serious sign of weakness for Clinton and would once again reveal how much she is struggling to unite the party in the face of Sanders’ strong challenge from the left.

Lorain, a steel town along Lake Erie that has lost hundreds of jobs in the past year, provides a microcosm for how these debates are playing in the industrial Midwest.

“All the foreign steel that’s coming in has destroyed our industry. We have thousands of people across the state out of work. I feel like the government just didn’t care,” said Betty Vazquez, a 49-year-old inspector shipper in the quality control department of Republic Steel who was laid off last July after 18 years.

Vazquez, a Democrat, is undecided about whom to vote for on Tuesday.

“I don’t know much about this Bernie but I’m going to learn more about him,” she said.

Distrust of Clinton on the trade issue runs deep here. As Husty, the millwright at US Steel, put it: “Her old man was the one who pushed NAFTA, and she’s changed her tune on TPP,” he said, referring to the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership reached in October.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership was not her first reversal on trade. While campaigning against Barack Obama in the 2008 election, she railed against a potential deal with South Korea, calling it “inherently unfair.” But as Obama’s secretary of state, she embraced it, calling it a “priority.” The US-Korea Free Trade Agreement took effect in 2012.

Since 2011, the US trade imbalance with South Korea has more than doubled to $28.3 billion, according to data collected by the Department of Commerce. Korean imports, especially cars and iron and steel mill products, have increased 22 percent since 2012, according to foreign trade statistics from the US Census Bureau.

In Ohio alone, more than 300,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost since NAFTA went into effect, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders spoke at a Missouri rally Sunday.

Michael B. Thomas/AFP/Getty Images

Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders spoke at a Missouri rally Sunday.

Sanders is driving the issue hard in Ohio. His campaign began airing a new television ad on Friday focusing on trade — referencing the 850,000 jobs lost under the North American Free Trade Agreement, negotiated under President George H.W. Bush but signed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, and the 3 million jobs lost following permanent normal trade relations with China, also under President Clinton.

The ad, which will also air in Illinois and Missouri, highlights Sanders’ record of opposing every trade deal and makes the connection between trade and taking money from special interest groups.

The state has been battered by the federal government’s inability to negotiate balanced trade deals, said US Representative Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat whose district includes Lorain.

Kaptur, the most senior woman in the House of Representatives, endorsed Sanders on Friday. In an interview with the Globe, she praised Sanders for his consistent record on trade, having joined her in voting against NAFTA when he served in the House.

“It was a tough vote because the most powerful economic interests in the world were on the other side, and he didn’t cower,” Kaptur said.

Kaptur, an outspoken critic of free-trade policies, said she was jolted last summer when she visited Cleveland for a Port Authority celebration and saw all the imported steel being unloaded. Hours earlier, she had spoken to pink-slipped workers at a US Steel plant.

“It was the most ‘Twilight Zone’ experience,” Kaptur said.

Republic Steel, headquartered in Canton, Ohio, is scheduled to indefinitely “idle” its Lorain plant, which once employed close to 700 workers, at the end of March. Much of the steel produced there went to the auto industry as well as piping for oil and gas drilling.

Glenn Loughrie, president of the Lorain County AFL-CIO, said other countries such as Korea and China benefit from “unfair” trade deals and “dump” their steel in the United States at artificially low prices.

Loughrie, 61, was laid off last month after 41 years as a mechanical hydraulic repairman for Republic Steel. He, too, remains undecided about whom to vote for.

“Clinton better step up to the plate and start talking about how she’s going to rectify some of these trade deals and decide what side of the table she’s sitting on,” Loughrie said.

Lorain Mayor Chase Ritenauer said less than two years ago, US Steel and Republic Steel together employed 1,200 workers in the city. Now there are only about 200 jobs, he said. The job losses have eroded the city’s tax base to the point where the city may have to cut fire and police services, he said.

While trade deals certainly played a part, Ritenauer said excess oil and gas on the world market has also dragged the local steel industry down.

“The populist message of Sanders, and I would venture even the populist message of Trump, on this issue is making some inroads here,” he said. But Ritenauer said he supports Clinton anyway. “If elected, she would be a champion for cities like Lorain.”

Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who said free trade deals are “absolutely killing our country,” is capitalizing on anger from members of the white working class who feel cast aside by Washington policies.

Trump’s message resonates in Lorain, where, in addition to the shuttering of Republic Steel, US Steel plans to cut its run time in half beginning this week — from 16 hours a day to just eight.

Husty, the soon-to-be-retired millwright, said he plans to change his party registration on Tuesday in order to vote for Trump. A lot of his colleagues at the steel mill also plan to vote for Trump, he said.

“Trump is going to get a lot of Democratic votes, believe it or not,” Husty said. “A lot of Caucasian workers are going to vote for him. Even some minorities. We talk about it all the time.”

Tracy Jan can be reached at tracy.jan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.
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