Rep. Tom Sawyer, D-Ohio, went home this Veteran's Day to learn how his constituents feel about the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Instead, the former schoolteacher spent his last days before a risky decision on the Nafta trying to teach people about trade, investment and having the courage to compete.It was a lesson that has gone down hard in Akron, as it has throughout what used to be called the industrial Midwest.

More than any other city perhaps, Akron has had its identity stripped by the decline of heavy industry in America. The "Rubber City" hasn't built a passenger car tire in 15 years. The wounds from this decline were never far

from the surface as Mr. Sawyer went from meeting to meeting discussing the Nafta. At a Rotary Club lunch at the Amber Restaurant, local businessman Mike Staschak said he feared the trade pact would be a "second Nafta for our area," following the flight of rubber industry jobs to other states and other countries.

As one of a handful of House members who have not said how they will vote on the trade pact, Mr. Sawyer has attracted more attention than he usually does. Trailed by a throng of reporters from Washington last week, his sessions with union officials and small business leaders were regularly interrupted by calls from White House counsel George Stephanopoulos and Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

This, after a private meeting last Monday with President Clinton.

After closing a Veteran's Day ceremony in the common area of one of the city's shopping malls, Mr. Sawyer said he probably would announce his position on the Nafta today. Although he went to great lengths to list what he thought were the shortcomings of the agreement, and singled out its alleged lack of labor protections as "a serious, serious problem," congressional sources on both sides of the question say Mr. Sawyer is expected to support the Nafta.

If he does, it could be a perilous decision.

Ohio is union territory, and unions are determined to defeat the agreement. Mr. Sawyer would be just the second Democrat in the state's congressional delegation to support the Nafta and the only lawmaker from either party in the northeastern part of the state.

During a day of public appearances in this city of 250,000, two things became apparent: Mr. Sawyer viewed his decision on the Nafta as an extended seminar with his constituents on "the enormous changes in our economy," and Akron itself - its decline and its rebirth - has held a vital lesson for Mr. Sawyer about those enormous changes and what they say about free trade.

The day began on a talk radio show at station WAKR. Host Dan Geffney fielded calls that were overwhelmingly against the agreement.

"I'm tired of the American people bailing out everyone in the world," said a caller named Bill. "We bailed out Russia; we bailed out Kuwait. When are we going to stop worrying about everyone else?"

Call by call, Mr. Sawyer addressed the familiar criticisms of the pact, which would create a free-trade zone of Canada, the United States and Mexico.

To those who claimed the agreement would encourage factories to move to Mexico and exploit cheap wages, he said nothing is stopping these companies now, that lower Mexican tariffs under the Nafta take away one reason for relocating and that defeating the Nafta will leave intact Mexico's ability to export to the United States.

After the radio show, he spent an hour talking with nine union officials at his district office. While the congressman allowed that there were "major shortcomings" to a new side agreement to the Nafta on labor standards, he spent most of the session trying to refute the idea that the Nafta would hasten job losses to Mexico.

After a luncheon speech to the Rotarians, Mr. Sawyer drove across Akron to his next appointment, passing by the hulking remains of shuttered tire plants. The congressman has often said that the first rubber factory left Akron for Los Angeles in 1920s.

"We lost 90,000 workers over the decades, just in this immediate area," he said. "Globalization is not a new phenomenon here . . . but unlike some areas, there has been a very successful adjustment."

Part of that adjustment has been a budding service industry. One of the largest employers in Akron is Summa Health Systems, the company that runs a regional medical center.

Another major employer is the University of Akron, which, along with nearby

Kent State University, is contributing to the most important industrial development in Akron in the last 15 years - the plastics and polymer industry. These universities are turning out the chemical engineers needed to drive this industry.

Alongside these new companies are old-line firms that have been transformed by the economic shakeout in the Akron area. Last Thursday, Mr. Sawyer toured 66-year-old Wright Tool Co. of Barberton, maker of wrenches and sockets. Although the 150-employee plant would seem to be the kind of lower-skilled manufacturing operation that could be threatened by Mexican competition, owner Richard Wright scoffed at the suggestion that the Nafta would hurt his business.

"I just returned from Mexico's largest tool manufacturer (in Guadalajara), and they just cannot compete with us here, in either quality or price," he said. The kind of specialized tools made by Wright are bought by large and small manufacturing businesses and Mr. Wright said, "I have no fear at all that those customers are going to go to Mexico."

Tom Sawyer ended the day speaking to veterans. He thanked them for their sacrifice to the United States and promised to fight for their benefits in Washington. After walking away from the podium, though, he spun around and delivered yet another plea for understanding of the Nafta.

"As a country we face a challenge, very much like the one we faced from Japan and Germany 50 years ago. Only this time, the challenge is not being fought with guns and bullets but on the stage of international commerce.

"If we back away from that challenge, I don't know if we will be strong enough in the future."

Mr. Sawyer said that education was the key to the Nafta's fate. "You can't win this thing in the long run without convincing people that it is right," he said.