MONTREAL - It's a knockdown, drag-out contest that pits a liberal-leaning longtime holder of high office against a conservative challenger from big oil country. Both candidates are running frenzied campaigns from sea to shining sea in a prosperous but ethnically divided nation that has been governed by the same party for two consecutive terms.
Aside from mutterings about the Mideast, neither candidate dwells on foreign policy, and one has been ridiculed for his mispronouncements on international affairs. The most hotly debated issues are domestic standbys: taxes, social security, big government, family values, health care, the economy, and, of course, that perennial favorite, gun control.
And although the real slugfest is between the two contenders from the top parties, there is a quixotic bid by a naggy third-party candidate whose name is instantly recognizable to every citizen of the land, but who seems to belong more to the 1970s than to Election 2000.
Welcome to North America's other great race.
Canada goes to the polls on Nov. 27 to decide whether to give the long-governing Liberal Party of Prime Minister Jean Chretien a third term or switch to the upstart Canadian Alliance led by Stockwell Day of oil-rich Alberta.
To the astonishment of political watchers, Day - a come-from-far-behind candidate of rightist views with an uncanny instinct for the photo op - has in a matter of months transformed his fledgling party into a force that has alarmed even the Liberals, Canada's only true national party.
Although he could have waited until 2002 to schedule the election, Chretien decided to call for an early vote, a privilege of the governing party under the parliamentary system, in hopes of heading Day's Alliance off at the pass. The aim is to knock out Day before he and his party gain greater support among Canadians weary of the long Liberal reign.
But with Quebec's separatist movement in the doldrums and no recent egregious bossiness by the United States to inflame northern passions, there are few big issues to rally voters. The Canadian electorate is distinctly unelectrified by either major candidate.
On the one hand, Day, a 50-year-old former Pentecostal preacher and provincial treasurer, is decried as too strident with his opposition to gun control, bad-mouthing of big government, and unabashed praise for Jesus.
In the words of Maclean's magazine: "Even though he was born in Barrie, Ontario, grew up in Montreal . . . and rose to political prominence in Alberta, there's something, well, vaguely American about him."
On the other hand, Canadians seem to be souring on the 66-year-old Chretien as a leader of too much arrogance and too little vision. The Liberals are still leading in the polls, but the same surveys suggest voters think it is time that Chretien stepped aside, a notion he scorns.
First elected to Parliament in 1963, the self-described "little guy" from French Quebec - who speaks famously mangled English - became prime minister in 1993, won re-election in 1997, and is seeking a third consecutive term against the wishes of allies within his own party.
"Anything could happen in this campaign," says Michael Bliss, professor of history at the University of Toronto. "We've got two leaders, either of whom is capable of making enormous gaffes - Day because he is relatively inexperienced and perhaps a little shallow; Chretien because he's old and losing it."
Founded this year, the Canadian Alliance is a fusion of the western-based Reform Party and defectors from the once-mighty but now nearly moribund Conservative Party.
Although still a long shot, the Alliance has huge support among western Canadians, especially in Alberta and British Columbia, and appears to be gathering strength in Ontario and Quebec.
Day, a bit like Texas Gov. George W. Bush, is regarded as affable and media savvy, but inexperienced and perhaps not too bright. Chretien, like Vice President Al Gore, has been a fixture of federal politics for so long that he is seen as a creature of pure politics. He's clever and quick on his feet, but doesn't seem to possess much in the way of a grand view.
Also in the running is Joe Clark, the almost spectacularly drab if indisputably earnest leader of the Conservative Party, who briefly served as prime minister in 1979 and now casts himself as the conscience of Canadian politics. Like Ralph Nader in the United States, Clark is instantly recognizable to most Canadians, but he is also dismissed as a kind of oddball relic - trustworthy, but from another era. His chances of restoring the Tories to former glory are reckoned to fall somewhere south of zilch, although he could act as spoiler.