Defense Minister Campbell gets quick start in race to succeed Mulroney

February 28, 1993|By New York Times News Service

TORONTO -- Kim Campbell, 45, a former lawyer fro Vancouver who is now defense minister, has emerged as an early favorite in the contest to succeed Brian Mulroney as Conservative Party leader and prime minister.

Not only do many political analysts and polls suggest that she is the one to beat in June, when the Conservatives hold their first convention to pick a leader, but the front-running Liberals have also begun challenging her in the House of Commons.

On Thursday, just a day after Mr. Mulroney announced he would step down, Liberal Party lawmakers barraged Ms. Campbell with questions about a government decision to spend $5.8 billion on 50 new Navy EH-101 helicopters while it was cutting back on foreign aid and on regional subsidies.

"We're not in the Cold War anymore, and we need the money for Canadian problems," said the Liberal leader, Jean Chretien.

Ms. Campbell, the first woman to serve as Canada's defense minister, responded that the helicopters were essential to patrolling Canada's extensive coastline and that the price was justified.

"I think Canadians need the technology of the '90s to serve them into the 21st century," she declared.

Similar exchanges are expected. Whoever wins the Conservative race will face the Liberals' Mr. Chretien, 59, and the New Democratic Party leader, Audrey McLaughlin, 56, in elections that must be called before the end of the year to choose Canada's 19th prime minister.

Having been elected to the House of Commons only five years ago, Ms. Campbell is considered by many to be the freshest personality the Conservatives have to offer. She plays the cello, speaks French and Russian and once taught political philosophy.

"It's too early to say how things will shape up," said Patrick Monahan, director of the York University Center for Public Law and Public Policy, "but at this stage people are talking about Kim. She's the one able to distance herself most from Mulroney )) and his legacy."

A new Gallup Poll taken Wednesday, the day Mr. Mulroney announced he was quitting, seemed to concur. When asked how they would vote if Ms. Campbell were party chief, respondents gave the Conservatives 37 percent, just 2 percentage points behind the Liberals at 39 percent. The other potential candidates trailed well behind the Liberals.

Mr. Mulroney took some unpopular actions in his 8 1/2 years as prime minister, such as imposing a national sales tax, lowering trade barriers and privatizing government enterprises.

Unable to persuade a broad sector of the population that the pain was worth it, he saw his support ratings plummet.

Ms. Campbell, a former justice minister, is a liberal on social issues and a conservative on economic ones, but most important, she is a symbol of change. What has also attracted followers is her unconventionality.

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