Canada offers fewer electoral votes than Rhode Island or Wyoming in a U.S. presidential election, but Senator John McCain still thought our northern neighbor was worth a visit last week.

The presumptive Republican nominee’s speech to the Economic Club of Canada allowed him to highlight his views on free trade, which represent what may be one of the starkest policy differences between him and his Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama.

During the primaries, Obama campaigned as a protectionist. He labeled the North American Free Trade Agreement “a big mistake” and even suggested that the United States should pull out of it.

More recently, Obama has moderated his rhetoric, suggesting that he didn’t really mean what he said about NAFTA. That’s good, because in my book flip flops are welcome when candidates abandon wrongheaded opinions in favor of wiser ones.

Yet it’s even more preferable when they don’t have to change their views at all–that is, when their views are rooted in something deeper than a desire to achieve a temporary political advantage.

Earlier this month, Peter Cook of Bloomberg asked McCain a frank question: “Are you prepared to lose votes and stick to your support for free trade?” McCain’s reply was unequivocal: “I’ve always been prepared to lose votes for what I know is right.”

Even Big Labor’s fiercest protectionists have to give McCain grudging credit for this level of candor. When other candidates pandered to Ohio primary voters with populist balderdash, the man who rides the “Straight Talk Express” explained his views in a town-hall meeting: “The economists that I know and trust and the history that I study … says that free trade is the best thing that can happen to our nation. When we have practiced protectionism, it has had devastating consequences.”

During a debate in Michigan, when other presidential candidates dumped on trade to impress the citizens of a state with a stumbling economy, McCain stuck to his guns. “Every time the United States has become protectionist and listened to the siren song that you’re hearing partially on this stage tonight, we’ve paid a very heavy price,” he said. “Free trade has been the engine of our economy. Free trade should be the continuing principle that guides this nation’s economy.”

For McCain, trade isn’t just something he talks about. The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank that monitors congressional trade votes, puts the matter plainly: “John McCain has been a consistent proponent of free trade during his time in the U.S. Senate.”

One of his most important votes involved approving NAFTA, the accord with Canada and Mexico. These two countries now buy about a third of all American exports.

Whereas Obama’s exact position on NAFTA remains uncertain, McCain used his forum in Canada last week to reiterate his commitment to international trade: “For all the successes of NAFTA, we have to defend it without equivocation in political debate, because it is critical to the future of so many Canadian and American workers and businesses. Demanding unilateral changes and threatening to abrogate an agreement that has increased trade and prosperity is nothing more than retreating behind protectionist walls.”

McCain didn’t mention Obama by name, which was appropriate because partisan criticism is one American product that we shouldn’t seek to sell abroad. Just before his trip, however, he penned a sharp column for readers of the Detroit Free Press. “Senator Obama’s take-it-or-leave-it approach to dealing with America’s friends would not rebuild the alliance relationships we need,” he wrote.

McCain also condemned “a misguided, isolationist impulse that would inevitably and understandably alienate a key partner like Canada.”

The current political climate demands a strong defense of existing trade agreements, but fortunately McCain has thought about how to do more than preserve the status quo. For instance, he has called for passage of the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, a measure that’s currently languishing in Congress, and a McCain trip to Colombia is being discussed. He has also envisioned a deal with the European Union–EUFTA, or, phonetically, “Yoofta.”

It’s all in keeping with what he told the Canadians–as well as any Americans who may have been listening: “I aspire to lead a proud, outward-looking America that deepens its partnerships throughout the hemisphere and the world.”

Dean Kleckner, an Iowa farmer, chairs Truth About Trade & Technology.