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U.S. trade deficit widens to record

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — America’s trade deficit hit a record monthly high in January, the start of an election year in which Democrats hope to use the swollen trade gap and the loss of U.S. jobs as campaign issues against President Bush.

The Commerce Department reported Wednesday that the trade imbalance mushroomed to $43.1 billion in the first month of 2004, representing a 0.9 percent increase from the previous month.

For all of 2003, the trade deficit posted an annual all-time high of $489.9 billion, according to revised figures.

The latest snapshot of trade activity comes as tensions have grown over global trade and the migration of jobs in the United States to other countries.

The Bush administration believes the best way to handle the trade deficits is to get other countries to remove trade barriers and open their markets to U.S. businesses. But Democrats and other critics point to the deficits as evidence that the president’s free-trade policies aren’t working and are a factor in the loss of U.S. jobs.

Bush defended his economic policies, including free-trade, Wednesday and renewed a warning against economic isolationism — a swipe at presumptive Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, though Bush did not mention him by name.

Kerry, a Massachusetts senator, has said he would place all trade deals under a 120-day review and would require companies to provide notice before moving jobs to other countries.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrials lost 160.07 points to close at 10,296.89.

The trade deficit in January grew as the value of imported goods and services eclipsed the value of U.S. exports.

Imports of goods and services came to $132 billion in January, the second-highest level on record. Still, that represented a 0.5 percent dip from the record level of imports seen in December. The economic rebound in the United States has fed demand for foreign-made goods.

Exports, meanwhile, totaled $89 billion in January, representing a 1.2 percent decrease from December.