Canada's Chretien catches up in the race to replace Trudeau

Veteran politician Jean Chretien is running a strong second in the race to succeed Pierre Trudeau as prime minister of Canada. This past week, when Mr. Trudeau and fellow Liberal Party front-runner, John Turner, got into a public squabble, Mr. Chretien came as close to getting an endorsement from the prime minister as he is likely to.

Mr. Turner told reporters that he quit the Trudeau Cabinet post of minister of finance in 1975 because he could not persuade Prime Minister Trudeau to negotiate voluntary wage and price restraints. Trudeau later brought in a full set of mandatory wage and price controls.

The prime minister issued a statement denying Turner's version of the resignation, saying it was a ''misrepresentation of events.'' It was an astonishing thing for Trudeau to have done, especially in the midst of the campaign by the seven men who are after his job.

Jean Chretien watched the fight from the sidelines - quietly, well almost quietly. He said he was ''very surprised'' by Mr. Turner's version of his resignation.

The biggest mark against Chretien at the start of the leadership race was that he was a French-speaking Canadian.The Liberal Party has a tradition of having one English-, then one French-speaking leader.

But many English Canadians now say it doesn't matter. And Jean Chretien is following the same line - that the language rule on the leadership is a tradition but not one that can't easily be broken.

Chretien is a small-town lawyer who has spent more than 20 years in federal politics. The member from Shawingan is now the energy minister in the Trudeau Cabinet, but he has had every major portfolio - finance, Indian and northern affairs, consumer and corporate relations - with the exception of external affairs.

One of the most popular politicians in the country, he has a wit that could earn him a living as a stand-up comic. That glib humor has got him in trouble in some quarters.

Chretien will play to an English-speaking audience, saying he is ''just a frog from Quebec. And I'm proud of it.'' That loosens up the crowd and gets rid of the worry that he might be a doctrinaire nationalist.

But it is the serious nationalists who do not support Chretien. They do not like his act and say he trivializes the language issue.

It is supremely ironic that in his home province of Quebec many of the French-speaking delegates are backing John Turner while the bulk of English Quebeckers back Chretien.

The reason is simple. Chretien is serious about minority language rights in Canada in spite of the humorous front he puts forward.

''More needs to be done,'' he said, speaking of the minority language issue at a policy session in Montreal last weekend. ''More will be done when I am prime minister.''

The weakest part of the Trudeau administration has been its economic record: The recovery is not so strong here as it is in the United States, unemployment is falling only slightly, and the Canadian dollar is worth a little more than 77 cents in American terms, down about 37 cents since Turner was finance minister.

This is one area Chretien has to support, especially since he held major economic jobs himself. His main opponent, Turner, wants to cut the federal deficit in half in three to seven years. Chretien says the deficit can't be cut until the economy picks up.

The two men are sometimes depicted as candidates of the left and right, with Chretien on the left.

Although he favors many of the Liberal social programs, he is hardly a candidate of the left.

He was popular on Bay Street (the Canadian Wall Street) when he was finance minister and is a close friend of Paul Desmarais, the head of Power Corporation, the huge Montreal-based holding company.

Jean Chretien thinks of himself as a man of the middle. ''I am neither on the left nor on the right. I am a Liberal and a Liberal is not doctrinaire.''

It is conceded that John Turner is in the lead running up to the June 16 convention. But not too far in the lead; Jean Chretien is not a Canadian Gary Hart.

The pundits and back-room analysts say Turner has to take the leadership early. If he does not, some of his support at the Ottawa convention may slip away to Chretien.

And that is what Jean Chretien is working for and hoping for.

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