It's still uphill for Joe Clark -- even after 'Canadian caper'

Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark was spiritedly typing additions to his campaign speech on small yellow cards as the bus left Toronto for Spanky's Restaurant in Brampton.

His somber Progressive Conservative Party aides chatted in subdued tones. One rummaged through a bag in the overhead rack and produced some sticks of pink licorice, which he handed around.

Other aides anxiously surveyed stories in the Toronto Star headlined "Midwest Ontario blue [Conservative] but Clark doesn't impress" and "Escape won't elect Clark, most say." This was a reference to the six US diplomatic personnel Canada smuggled out of Tehran last week -- an escape dubbed by the press as the "Canadian caper."

The Prime Minister, Who came to power only last May, is in grave trouble. But he probably forgot his electoral woes as he strode into Spanky's, a band at his heels, to be breeted with a standing ovation from the Brampton-Georgetown Progressive Conservative Association.

In fact, with less than two weeks to the general election, the Prime Minister's predicament is not quite so hopeless as it once appeared to be.

Back in mid-January a Gallup poll in Toronto gave Pierre Trudeau's Liberal Party a huge lead of 31 percentage points over the Conservatives.But a second Gallup survey in Toronto released this past weekend showed Mr. Clark only 13 points behind, suggesting that he had garnered additional support as a result of Canada's dashing "Scarlet Pimpernel" role in Tehran.

The crowd in the Brampton restaurant was impatient to hear the Prime Minister. Declaring to be "a very great Canadian," Ontario Premier William Davis finished his introduction and sat down. Smiling cherubicly, Mr. Clark sprang to his feet and, in an authoritative voice with a distinct, mellow rasp, exclaimed: "We didn't call this election but we're going to win it." His words were lost in a gale of applause.

But the dapper, fast-talking Prime Minister is still dogged by a widespread conviction that he welched on a string of election promises.

Although the Conservative government survived only seven months, crashing to parliamentary defeat Dec. 13 over a tough austerity budget, Joe Clark's brief performance persuaded a large number of Canadians that he was not hewn from the sort of timber traditionally reserved for prime ministers.

His proposal in April, 1979, to move the Canadian Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (seen as intended to win Jewish votes in Toronto) damaged the government's reputation for an even-handed foreign policy. Then, when the scheme was abandoned after threats of Arab economic reprisal, the government appeared vulnerable to blackmail.

On the campaign trail Mr. Clark criticized high interest rates under the Liberals. But the country received no relief when he came to power. Today interest rates are the highest they have ever been in Canadian history.

But it was the Conservative budget that cast the most serious doubts on Joe Clark's credibility. He had promised that his first budget would include $2 billion in tax cuts. Instead, when announced by Finance Minister John-Crosbie, it proposed some $3.5 billion in tax increases - designed, as the minister explained to reduce the government's $11 billion annual deficit, to combat inflation, and to compel energy conservation.

It struck the average Canadian as particularly savage. Apart from imposing an immediate 20 cent increase on a gallon of gasoline, it also increased taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. Mr. Clark called it "short-term gain." He defended the budget at Brampton, insisting that it had been "a tough, honest, face-the-facts budget" essential for Canada's economic recovery.

As the Conservative government became a byword for ineptitude and bungling, Joe Clark became the butt of a nation's humor. For numerous Canadians, he projects an image of weakness and incompetence. Jokes about him swept the country like sparks through stubble. A sample: Question: Why does Joe Clark carry a turkey around with him? Answer: Spare parts.

If the quartet of political scientists who wrote Political Choice in Canada last year are correct, the personality of a party leader is everything in Canadian politics. Studying data from the 1968 and 1974 elections, the authors concluded that for Canadian voters, consideration of personality and style "dwarf all others," adding that they also "bulk large in the negative responses." They found that leadership qualities ranked third, while issues came in a very poor fourth.

It was issues that Mr. Clark was hammering home at Spanky's Restaurant: the quality of life, the economy, energy independence, and a strong military. "We believe in the Western alliance because we believe in Western values," he proclaimed. "Canada is not neutral. We have obligations to back up that belief with action."

The Conservatives are fighting this campaign under the slogan "Real change deserves a fair chance," asserting that, in toppling the government, the Liberals and the New Democratic Party cheated Canadians of the all-essential change the country needs for it to prosper.

"All we ask now is a fair chance to carry on the job we just got started," declared Mr. Clark as he finished his speech to a second standing ovation.

If Joe Clark's campaign is not exactly generating a white heat in the land, he might note that "the high potential for electoral change is itself one of the most important and enduring characteristics of the Canadian political system," according to the authors of Political Choice in Canada.

He has declared that if he loses the coming election, it will be because of his image. "That's all I'll be beaten by," he told the Montreal Gazette recently. The verdict comes in on Feb. 18.

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