Toronto — The underdogs are important in the contest for the office of prime minister of Canada. There are two clear leaders in the race for the leadership of the Liberal Party, which will be determined at a party convention in mid-month. Because the Liberals are in power, this is also a race for the prime ministership.
John Turner is in the No. 1 spot with Jean Chretien not far behind. Five other men are also running.Do any of them stand a chance? Maybe.
The ghost of Joe Clark hovers over the Liberal leadership drive. Mr. Clark, the former Progressive Conservative leader, is still very much alive, but he is remembered for the remarkable campaign in 1976 in which he captured control of the Tory Party.
This unknown young man from Alberta came straight up the middle against the two leading contenders and won. The convention was amazed. People asked, ''Joe Who?''
That unfortunate nickname stuck, and Joe Who was beaten by Brian Mulroney last summer.
The five Liberals running behind the leaders all see the Joe Clark phenomenon happening to them. Some of them are dreaming in color, others might have a chance but the Liberal convention might not give them that chance. The Liberals are not split and bitter like the Tories were in 1976.
All the men running for Pierre Trudeau's job are in his Cabinet. Three seem to have little chance of winning.
Eugene Whelan, the minister of agriculture, has done a good job in his portfolio. He fancies himself a man of the people, but he has little knowledge of economics and has put forth some policy proposals on such areas as interest rates and foreign exchange controls that economists call simplistic. Whelan has been censured for making a blatant racist remark.
John Munro, the minister of Indian and northern affairs, says he is on the left wing of the party. A former minister of labor, he represents a district in the steel city of Hamilton. He has been named, but never found at fault, in several scandals.
Mark MacGuigan is minister of justice. He is an intelligent, thoughtful man but politicos would say he lacks charisma, and that means voter appeal. One thing the Liberal Party loves is voter appeal.
Donald Johnston is a tax lawyer from Montreal who is long on policy but short on charm, pundits say. He has made himself heard with ideas, a rarity in this race. On the right wing of the party, he wants to get the federal government out of businesses it has picked up, either through bailouts (aircraft) or economic nationalism (oil). He is thought to be tied for third place with John Roberts.
Mr. Roberts, the minister of employment, was long the minister of the environment. He was nicknamed the minister in charge of acid rain because he picked up quickly on that issue. Smooth, charming, and intelligent, Mr. Roberts is slightly to the left of center and is a strong believer in economic nationalism, which means tariffs and no free trade with the United States.
There was news last week that might help the two front-runners.
A poll by the Toronto Globe and Mail showed that John Turner would beat Tory leader Brian Mulroney if an election were held now, Jean Chretien would run neck and neck with him, and the other five candidates would lose to the Tories.
That is bad news for the Liberal also-rans, especially in a Liberal Party that does not like to lose.