OTTAWA - The fourth annual edition of the North American leaders summit, which gets underway Monday in New Orleans, is facing a bit of an identity crisis.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper will spend two days schmoozing with U.S. President George W. Bush and Mexican President Felipe Calderon in their ongoing pursuit of something called the Security and Prosperty Partnership, or SPP.

It's an essentially bureaucratic exercise in red-tape cutting that was elevated to summit status in 2005 under former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin and then-Mexican president Vicente Fox.

Dubbed the Three Amigos Summit, only Bush remains from the original trio and he's in his final year as U.S. president.

That presidential transition is one of the factors buffeting this year's SPP summit.

The North American Free Trade Agreement, which over-arches many of the SPP's initiatives, is being roasted by Democratic hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Political support for NAFTA has always been a given during SPP deliberations. But Canadian officials were curiously noncommittal when asked whether a resounding vote of confidence in the trade deal will be voiced in New Orleans.

Not so the Bush administration, which has loudly proclaimed that the summit will be used as a pro-NAFTA pulpit.

The contrast may be a pragmatic case of Harper hedging his bets. His government was badly singed last month when it blundered into the Democratic race by revealing confidential diplomatic assurances from the Obama camp regarding NAFTA.

Pinning down the substance of the summit talks is just as slippery as the politics.

Everything from Cuban and Venezuelan leadership to carbon sequestration and food testing was mentioned during various pre-summit briefings.

"These meetings are not about announcements, per se," a senior Canadian official told reporters at a background briefing last week. "They're about giving leaders an opportunity to meet and talk to each other."

What they'll talk about depends on who you ask.

The White House says pushing for common regulations in the auto sector - on fuel efficiency, as an example - will be a priority in the discussions. Canadian government officials didn't even mention the auto sector as a topic of discussion.

U.S. officials also spoke specifically about improving the Windsor-Detroit border crossing, which handles a quarter of all Canada-U.S. trade - and more than America imports from Japan - over a four-lane bridge that was built in 1929.

While Canadian officials also pointed to the border issue as a priority area of discussion, they stressed processes rather than infrastructure.

"We would hope to make some progress in the area of land pre-clearance," said the Canadian official.

Energy supply will definitely be on the table, according to officials from both Canada and the United States. And against the backdrop of the NAFTA debate, expect both Bush and Harper to remind Americans where they get their fuel.

"We are the largest energy supplier to the United States - a fact which I suspect may not be well known in the United States," noted the Canadian official.

In Washington, a White House director made precisely the same point: "Canada, by the way, is our largest source of foreign oil; again, something that most people don't focus on," Dan Fisk told a briefing Friday.

The most compelling news out of last year's summit in Montebello, Que., was the ham-fisted infiltration of protest lines by agents provocateurs from the Surete du Quebec police force.

But even the protest storyline appears a bit muddy for New Orleans.

An online website for summit protesters has invited one and all to its "leaderless protest."

"No matter your issue, this is the time to take a stand for what you believe in," says NOLA Protest, above sub-headings on topics ranging from the mythical NAFTA Superhighway to waterboarding to the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and "global fascism."

A weekend rally in Ottawa sponsored by the Council of Canadians attracted only a handful of activists and had a similar lack of focus.

"Rendition is not Canadian," said a couple of signs. "Stop the SPP," said others. The connection between the two was inscrutable.

Two street kids with a TV set in a shopping cart who happened to be hanging out at the protest staging point were given free kazoos, but were initially turned away.

"They don't even want us in their protest," the scruffy teen told his girlfriend. "It's a pre-arranged protest."

By the time the protest group marched to Parliament Hill, the street kids and their shopping cart were among the two-dozen chanting sloganeers.