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President Clinton welcomed Brazil's president to the White House Thursday in a ceremony that highlighted the new era of Brazilian-American friendship amid somber reminders of the terrorist attack in Oklahoma City.

After restating his commitment to punish the perpetrators of Wednesday's bombing, Clinton praised President Fernando Hen-rique Cardoso's effort to bring economic stability and social justice to Brazil."Brazil is poised to take its rightful place as a shining example for all the Americas and all the world," Clinton said in brief remarks on the White House South Lawn.

For his part, Cardoso, after expressing deep sorrow for Wednesday's "barbaric act," said he is convinced that "the time has come for us to elevate bilateral relations to a new level, a level that will allow our people to make the most of the opportunities for cooperation between Brazil and the United States."

The American-educated Cardoso, who took office just three months ago, is viewed by U.S. officials as a welcome relief after an extended period in which Brazil was best known here for unsound fiscal policies or human rights violations committed by dictatorial regimes.

"For the first time in 30 years, we will meet without any contention between Brazil and the United States," Cardoso told an interviewer last week.

After his morning meeting with Clinton, Cardoso was due to be feted at a luncheon hosted by Vice President Al Gore. Clinton will have a state dinner for Cardoso tonight.

Cardoso became a hero of sorts last year when, as finance minister, he tamed runaway inflation. His grateful countrymen rewarded him by electing him president by a landslide last fall. One of his goals here will be to convince would-be investors that Brazil's hard-earned stability will not disappear like Mexico's.

"Cardoso could be the strongest ally, collaborator, partner that the United States has had (in Latin America) for a long time," said Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a public policy research group.

Hakim envisions the day when the North American Free Trade Agreement blends with a four-nation South American free trade area led by Brazil. Given the huge percentage of hemispheric wealth controlled by the two groups, such an agreement would go a long way toward fulfilling the goal of a Western Hemisphere-wide free trade agreement, Hakim said.