First Woman? Youngest? Canada To Get New Prime Minister


On the one hand, she would be Canada's first female prime minister and the first from British Columbia. On the other, he would be Canada's youngest-ever prime minister and yet another Quebecker.

She is Defense Minister Kim Campbell, he is Environment Minister Jean Charest, and today 3,846 delegates to a Conservative party meeting in Ottawa are almost certain to pick one of them to replace Brian Mulroney as party leader and therefore as prime minister.

Whoever wins will be only halfway home, though, if she, or he, wants to become more than a footnote in Canadian history. Under Canada's parliamentary system, elections must be held by this November, meaning that today's victor is going to have to turn right around and fight a popular election to keep the job -- a fact that is not lost on today's delegates.

American presidents like Canada's outgoing prime minister, -Z Brian Mulroney, because he is affable and because compared with him their popularity ratings are positively huge. Even British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had a 32 percent approval rating after appeasing his country into World War II; Mr. Mulroney's latest was 21 percent.

Mr. Mulroney announced in February that he would step down this month and began a series of controversial (i.e., "Why do we taxpayers have to pay for all this?") farewell visits to various parts of the globe. He was in Washington two weeks ago.

First off the mark in the race to succeed him was Ms. Campbell. She came on so strong that many bigger name candidates decided not to enter the competition, a decision they may now regret. Without big names, Canada was left with a field reminiscent of last year's crop of U.S. Democratic contenders.

Only five others joined the race, only one of whom was given any chance whatsoever of being competition, Mr. Charest.

Ms. Campbell, 46, has been in national politics for only five years. A Vancouver lawyer, she went from the school board to parliament to an early cabinet seat as justice as minister. It was only this year that she became defense minister, a posting seen at the time as giving her a high-profile position for the future.

The future came quickly, and she just as quickly took advantage of it.

Fast out of the blocks, her ratings started high and kept climbing. Polls showed her beating her likely competitors not only today but also in the looming general election.

She wasn't universally endorsed, however. Woman or not, Canada's largest feminist group said she was too conservative on fiscal matters that affected its members, things such as funding for social programs.

Being on the summit also made her a visible target, but in the end her rocket faltered not because of attacks from the outside but because of what she herself said and didn't say. What she didn't say was substantive comments on issues. Observers say she was too afraid of alienating any potential voter. In a series of televised debates, her "safe" performance was judged as somewhere between uninspired and lackluster.

But her mouth didn't totally play it safe, it kept coming up with comments that offended or irritated on a non-issue level, such as when she said that people who disagreed with her economic policies were "enemies of Canada."

Canadians began having second thoughts on just who she was and what she stood for.

Around to pick up the newly dissatisfied was Mr. Charest, the only other politician in the race with a national reputation. His performances in the debates attracted people as hers turned them off. He closed the gap to single digits.

"Campbell is dropping like a stone. . . . Charest is climbing very nicely," observed Lorne Bozinoff of the Canadian Gallup organization early this month.

And those ever-present polls also say that Mr. Charest could beat the Liberal and New Democrat opposition in the general election whereas Ms. Campbell has become doubtful.

The 34-year-old's candidacy, though, raised the age-old question youth vs. experience. And it raised, to some extent, the question of Quebec.

While Quebec keeps its home-rule fires burning and keeps moaning how little power it has, Quebecers keep leading the national government. But for two few-month stretches, Quebecers have occupied the prime minister's office continuously for 25 years, since Lyndon Johnson was president this side of the border.

As the voting begins, Ms. Campbell still has the edge, both in the number of commited delegates and in the strength of her organization. Mr. Charest has said he has no hope of winning on the first ballot, that his plan is to get to a second ballot, where first-ballot commitments are no longer binding, and take the nomination then.

It is uncertain if Ms. Campbell can win in the first round. She does not have enough delegates committed to her to assure this victory, but the large number of uncommitted delegates have to vote for someone and she may pick up enough to put her over.

If it goes to a second ballot, the contest moves into the who-knows category.

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