Ross Perot's choice of economist Pat Choate as a running mate is not likely to propel his Reform Party ticket to the top of the opinion polls. Still, it is an ominous development. The Perot-Choate team's disdain for free trade is bound to bring protectionism to the forefront of the electoral debate. The mainstream candidates, both of whom have shown they can bend their views according to the latest polls, must avoid falling into the protectionist trap.

Mr. Perot and his harangues against the North American Free Trade Agreement helped him to win 19 percent of the popular vote in the 1992 presidential election. He has never stopped warning voters of the ''giant sucking sound'' of American jobs heading to Mexico, despite evidence to the contrary. In his hostility toward Nafta, he found a kindred spirit in Mr. Choate. The two parlayed their trade xenophobia into a paperback, ''Save Your Job, Save Our Country: Why Nafta Must Be Stopped Now!'' which tried to elevate protectionism to patriotism.Mr. Choate, a wannabe Washington insider who failed because he wouldn't play by the insiders' rules, has earned protectionist stripes of his own. He brought Japan bashing to new heights with his 1990 Philippic, ''Agents of Influence,'' in which he accused much of the lobbying community of treason for representing foreign governments.

A brainy and prolific writer who has earned the respect - and scorn - of many economists, Mr. Choate is unlikely to appeal to Middle America on a personal level. His views on trade, however, may well be popular. Calls for economic isolationism and protecting domestic jobs from imports are appealing in today's sound-bite debates. This is especially so at a time of slow economic growth and stagnating wages. Not many voters will look into economic studies showing that, for example, the U.S. share of Mexico's imports rose from 69 percent to 74 percent in the first year of Nafta, or that U.S. merchandise exports to Mexico and Canada were up 16 percent over the same period. Not many voters will appreciate the fact that a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. economy is dependent on trade, or that open markets are absolutely essential if the U.S. economy - or any economy, for that matter - is to prosper in an age of global integration.

Both President Clinton and Republican contender Bob Dole are very much aware of that, and have shown a willingness to pander to protectionists. Mr. Dole is a moderate on trade whose support for Nafta in the Senate was crucial to its ratification. But when erstwhile Republican contender Pat Buchanan showed he could score points with Iowa voters by preaching protectionism, Mr. Dole changed his stripes and campaigned in the New Hampshire primary sounding more Buchananesque than Mr. Buchanan himself. He reverted to form when Mr. Buchanan disappeared from the political scene, dismissing trade as an issue with a half-hearted swipe at the World Trade Organization in his nomination acceptance speech. Mr. Clinton, too, has been playing to the protectionist bleachers. After supporting Nafta and the GATT trade agreement early on, the president responded to complaints from the Teamsters Union and barred Mexican trucks from U.S. highways. He also yielded to Florida tomato farmers clamoring for protection from Mexican imports. Trade liberalization talks have been put on hold, as was the expansion of Nafta to Latin America. Opening markets disappeared from his electoral platform.

With Mr. Choate now on the Reform Party ticket, however, protectionism is likely to roar back into American politics and test anew the candidates' mettle. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Dole must reject the easy solutions of Perot-Choate, which are nearly always wrong, and, instead, run on their own trade records, which are mostly right.

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