Orillia, Ontario - the small town Canada's candidates can't afford to bypass

Orillia, Ontario, had not seen a prime minister pass through town since the election of 1965. But this summer Prime Minister John Turner visited the Orillia Opera House, and Conservative leader Brian Mulroney came to town a week later.

Both men played up the romantic image of Orillia, the typical Canadian small town immortalized by the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock, who published ''Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town'' in 1912. But the visits of the two political leaders have little to do with romance and a lot to do with the hard reality of politics.

Orillia, the little town known in Leacock's fiction as Mariposa, was the scene of the closest election battle in the 1980 federal election. Only 66 votes separated the winning Conservative from the losing Liberal. A pedant might point out that there was a 19-vote spread in the Yukon, but there are fewer voters in that Arctic electorial district and the percentage difference was narrowest in Orillia, or to be more exact, Simcoe North, as the district is called.

Stephen Leacock wrote two of his wittiest stories about the election of 1911, when the Conservatives turned out the Liberals not just locally but nationally. This time 'round, the Conservatives have the seat, the Liberal is popular and working hard, and it could be a close call again, but the national election looks almost certain to go to the Conservatives.

The public opinion polls have done a complete switch since the newly elected Liberal leader called the Sept. 4 election. The latest Gallup Poll shows the Conservatives with 46 percent of committed voters, the Liberals with 32 percent, and the socialist New Democrats - and this is a surprise - with 18 percent.

Just look at the figures on June 21: In a poll taken just after Mr. Turner was elected Liberal leader and prime minister, the Liberals has 49 percent, the Conservatives 38, and the NDP 11.

It was that poll that led Mr. Turner to call an election, certain of a new mandate and four or five years in office. How wrong he was.

''It looks like a Diefenbaker sweep,'' said a senior Ottawa-based correspondent as we sat watching Mr. Turner leave the Orillia Opera House and head through the crowd.

He was referring to the election of 1958, when Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker steamrolled over the Liberals and his party won 208 seats out of a total of 264. There are now 284 seats in the House of Commons, and many people are saying the Tories could take as many as 200.

A senior Tory MP who was a Cabinet minister in the 1979 Conservative government said privately this past week that he doesn't think his party will win that big. ''I hope we don't, it would be too lopsided. Just a big majority would be fine.''

Most political observers say the Liberals' problem has been Mr. Turner. They say he has been out of politics too long and has lost the touch.

And he appeared indecisive when he gave in to former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau on a series of political patronage appointments.

Mr. Mulroney is keeping his head down, avoiding political pitfalls. One of his political weaknesses is his quick wit; he can lampoon an opponent and be as funny as a stand-up comic, but it detracts from his serious side. It's hard to be a wisecracking statesman.

Up in Orillia, they take their politics seriously. Farmers and townsfolk display their campaign signs. Liberals and Tories don't speak to one another during the election campaign. It may still be a close vote here, but it is swing districts such as this one that make Ontario so important in the election and that draw big politicians to a small town.

Although it is touch and go here, out there in the rest of Canada it looks as though a new phrase might be coined on the night of Sept. 4: Mulroney sweep.

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