“Now we start onto all 50 states,” said Michele Bachmann, after winning the Iowa Straw Poll on Saturday. Having proven herself popular among Republicans in the Hawkeye State who attended that event, Bachmann has a remarkable opportunity to introduce herself to the rest of the country.

Voters will want to hear what she says about jobs. Bachman and her GOP competitors certainly have been talking about them. At their debate last Thursday in Ames, IA., “jobs” was the word of the night: It came up more than 40 times.

No wonder. The unemployment rate floats above 9 percent. Polls show that jobs are the top concern of most Americans, beating the federal deficit, health care, and the war in Afghanistan.

One of the best ways to build jobs is to boost trade. On this topic, Bachmann and her rivals must say more–especially on the need for Congress to approve the pending free-trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea.

The United States already exports more than $48 billion each year to these three nations. Enacting the free-trade deals would drive this up by about $12 billion. The International Trade Commission, a federal agency, has estimated that the pacts would create 100,000 new jobs. Business groups go even higher: They claim jobs would jump by 250,000.

Both results would be welcome and lawmakers should be satisfied with either one as well as anything in between.

Unfortunately, the trade agreements are snagged in old-fashioned Washington gridlock. President Obama claims he’s for them. Democrats and Republicans in Congress claim they’re for them. And yet the agreements continue to languish, as they have for years.

As prospective leaders, Republican presidential candidates must say where they stand on these deals and explain how they’d make them a reality. They neglected to do this during Thursday’s debate.

Ron Paul, who finished a strong second in the Iowa straw poll, called for free trade with Cuba–a worthy cause, but also an issue that isn’t on the political front burner at the moment. It’s a little disingenuous as well because Paul tends to vote against trade agreements when they come before him in Congress. He can talk a good game, but he’s no friend of free trade.

Mitt Romney, regarded by many pundits as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination, was the only other candidate to mention trade. He ticked off seven ways to improve the economy. “Number three,” he said, “is to have trade policies that work for us, not just for our opponents.”

This was vague to a fault. On other occasions, Romney has expressed his support for the trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. They would work for us. He knows it and should say so.

The trade policies that work for our opponents are the ones we don’t approve. In failing to approve them, we surrender competitive advantages to our rivals. The European Union recently finalized a trade pact with South Korea and Canada has just concluded one with Colombia. Every day, we’re losing market share to them.

Right now, there may be no better way for the federal government to create jobs than by approving trade agreements. They don’t raise taxes on anyone or increase spending on top of our burgeoning debt crisis. Instead, they simply create the conditions for economic growth and the job gains that always come with it.

Exports have been one of the few bright spots in the U.S. economy, but they could use a little more brightening. We can’t assume that they’ll just keep on humming in the absence of trade diplomacy. The latest report from the Department of Commerce shows that exports weakened between May and June, when they dropped by more than $4 billion.

Is this a hiccup or a trend? It’s hard to say, but in either case Americans need more opportunities to export goods and services to foreign customers. The trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea would wipe out a wide range of tariffs that make our products needlessly expensive.

Let’s hope the Republican presidential candidates begin to speak up on their behalf and President Obama provides action to go with his words.

Dean Kleckner chairs Truth About Trade & Technology http://www.truthabouttrade.org