Pignanelli: "Is that a cappuccino drink?" was a friend's response to my inquiry regarding his opinion of CAFTA. Although not a hot coffee beverage, CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) is percolating among politicos as an issue that could impact national and Utah congressional elections. CAFTA establishes a free-trade zone with six Latin American countries and removes $33 billion of tariffs imposed on imports. Proponents claim this will create more jobs on both sides and shore up fledgling democracies. Opponents point to the lack of bipartisan input to the CAFTA document, which is devoid of environmental and worker protections.

Southeastern Republican congressmen, sensitive to textile and sugar industries concerned with the pact, stalled the bill for almost a year. Wounded from failed Social Security reform efforts and dropping public confidence in the Iraq struggle, President Bush prioritized CAFTA this spring in order to demonstrate his relevancy. However, Bush & Company demonstrated their usual incompetence in garnering broad national support on anything, and CAFTA was doomed to fail. Smelling blood for an opportunity to embarrass the administration, Democratic leadership, labor unions and a variety of leftist organizations made CAFTA an ideological litmus test. Labor more than drew a line in the sand; it carved a canal and dared Democrats to cross. Even in the midst of the recent split at the Chicago convention last month, presidents of the 20 largest unions sent a letter to the Democratic national leaders threatening "real and measurable consequences" in opposing labor, and no Democrat member of Congress could receive a "pass on CAFTA."

CAFTA limped out of the House on a 217-215 vote, which included Congressman Jim Matheson and 14 other Democrats voting "yes." The fallout to these mavericks has been substantial. Labor is promising to withhold campaign funds to the wayward Democrats (almost $300,000 to Matheson), populist liberals are threatening interparty primary opposition and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is grumbling about committee assignments.

To remain a powerful contender in 2006, Matheson must repair his relationship with labor. The unions will remember his support on crucial issues: the Free Choice Act (reinforcing collective-bargaining), federal funds for worker retraining, important wage and safety considerations on federal transportation projects, affirmation of union retirement issues. Matheson has the ability to transform the kind words he is receiving from local business leaders into financial support and endorsements (CAFTA countries are Utah's fifth largest growth market).

While Matheson has angered some Democrats over CAFTA, the issue has made him virtually bulletproof against any Republican challenger. The traditional and wearisome claims that he is a Pelosi lackey and subservient to left-wing special-interest organizations will ring hollow. Intelligent Republicans will remember how the Utah Democrat rescued the president. Thus, Bush's ineptitude may have guaranteed Matheson's re-election in 2006.

Webb: A win in politics happens to be 50 percent of the vote, plus one. Far from showing "ineptitude," the CAFTA vote was a nice win for Bush, demonstrating his legislative prowess against tough odds. No question that Bush had a lot at stake, and he showed he can win the close ones and twist some arms when necessary. He defeated the big unions and the usual angry Democratic opposition.

Jim Matheson may be a Democrat, but he's a slippery Democrat. He's smart enough to know that his future depends a whole lot more on Utah Republican voters than on union bosses. It was a tough vote for him, because the labor bosses were serious about punishing Democrats who strayed. He's in the union dog house, but the unions are in disarray and, in the end, where are they going to go?

It is true that the vote gives Matheson a nice symbol to point to when he's accused of talking like a conservative in Utah but following his liberal party leadership like a lemming in Washington when the chips are down and they really need his vote.

He can legitimately say he stood up to organized labor and his party leadership. Among 14 Democratic defectors, Matheson was particularly singled out by union chiefs for special wrath as one of three frontline Democrats (those considered most vulnerable) who had been feted at a $300,000 union fund-raiser just before the vote.

Matheson's labor money may dry up, but what is bad for Matheson in Washington is often good for him in Utah. He was able to demonstrate his independence and willingness to part ways with Democratic leadership. Branding him as a closet liberal is now more difficult. Matheson walks the political tightrope rather adroitly.

Utah Republicans so far have not come up with a solid candidate to oppose Matheson in 2006, and time is running short. Matheson isn't invincible, but he is entrenched to the point that he can be defeated only by the ideal candidate under near-perfect circumstances.

Salt Lake County is the key. If the Republicans can find a respected candidate who can come within 25,000 to 30,000 votes of Matheson in Salt Lake County, then the race is winnable. An excellent GOP candidate can defeat Matheson badly in the rest of the district, making up those 25,000 to 30,000 votes.

But it won't work to simply attack Matheson and point out that he's not a Republican. Salt Lake County voters have demonstrated over and over that they're willing to vote for competent, moderate Democrats. While contrasts must be drawn on the issues, the emphasis must be on capability and stature. The GOP must find a candidate who has higher stature, is more competent and will outwork Matheson. That means a current popular politician or a well-known business leader with real charisma, respect and presence.


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Republican LaVarr Webb was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. He now is a political consultant and lobbyist. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. A former candidate for Salt Lake mayor, Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. Pignanelli's spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is executive director of the state Department of Administrative Services in the Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. administration. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.