Winter election may leave Canada's Clark in the cold

Liberal Party leader Pierre Trudeau seems on the verge of an election victory Feb. 18 that will restore the Liberals to their traditional place as the preeminent national party in Canada.

Knocked out of power last summer for the first time in 16 years and with only three elected representatives from western Canada, the Liberals were thought to be in serious trouble. Now, less than a year later, the party appears well on its way to a striking revival.

Though Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Joe Clark's faltering campaign benefited from the recent escape of six Americans from the Canadian Embassy in Iran, the latest Gallup Poll showed Mr. Trudeau still holding a comfortable 15 percent lead in public support with a week to go in the campaign.

Many Canadians believe the country's 15 million voters may even return Mr. Trudeau to power with a majority government. If this proves true, it would be a stunning blow to the hopes of the Conservatives, who ended Mr. Trudeau's 11 -year-reign as prime minister only last May.

Losing the election would almost certainly spell the demise of Mr. Clark as party leader of the short-lived, minority Conservative government toppled by the Liberal and New Democratic opposition parties in December.

The election has clearly asserted anew the primacy of the leaders' images in Canadian politics, since much of the campaign has been concerned with the incompetence imputed to Mr. Clark by his opponents.

As much as anything else, the apparent shift in support away from the Conservatives seems a rejection of the 18-cent-a-gallon hike Mr. Clark initiated in the gasoline excise tax.

This proposal is the most striking feature of an austere set of policies intended to improve Canada's energy and economic picture that Mr. Clark has been trying to sell to the voters.

The public, however, has seemed much more willing to embrace Mr. Trudeau's approach, which recognizes the need for realistic economic measures but promises a more gradual adjustment.

Beyond that, a Liberal victory may signal a renewal of the regional squabbling that has become commonplace in Canada in recent years. A Liberal government would reopen oil-price and revenue-sharing negotiations with the producing provinces, mainly Alberta, that are sure to be fractious and prolonged.

The Liberals, who have held power in Canada for 38 of the last 45 years, are expected to complete their traditional sweep of most seats in the province of Quebec. In Ontario, where the election will be decided, many think the Liberals may achieve a reversal of the result in last May's election. Then, the Conservatives won 57 of the province's 95 seats, while the Liberals took 32.

Whatever the vote count, the surprise winter election will be remembered as one of the country's most unusual.

While Mr. Clark has struggled to overcome his lackluster image, Mr. Trudeau has been coasting on an unexplained resurgence of popularity.

Despite his undisguised reluctance to put aside his retirement plans to run for a fourth term, Mr. Trudeau has enjoyed a steady lead in opinion samplings since the campaign opened. This has seemed undiminished either by his refusal to say how long he will stay on as prime minister if he wins, or by his reluctance to discuss Liberal policies in great detail during the campaign.

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