John Turner needs all the help he can get in British Columbia. Canada's Liberal prime minister is running for a seat in the riding of Vancouver Quadra in the Sept. 4 elections. Polls taken this week show him running third. His Progressive Conservative opponent, William Clarke, the sitting member, has 53 percent of local support. The New Democratic candidate has 23 percent, and the prime minister only 20 percent.
If Turner fails to win the seat in Vancouver, it won't be a first. Prime ministers have lost personal elections in the past, says retired Sen. Eugene Forsey, a constitutional expert: ''Sir John A. MacDonald lost in the election of 1878 and Mackenzie King lost in 1925 and 1945.''
Turner decided to run in Vancouver to show western Canada that he and the Liberal Party cared about their problems. The Liberals do not have one seat in British Columbia. The big battles here are between the Conservatives and the socialist New Democratic Party. There are 28 seats in the House of Commons to be filled from British Columbia; right now 17 are Conservative and 11 are NDP. British Columbia, with its tradition of tough labor unions, is a stronghold for the NDP, which has a total of 31 seats in Parliament.
The reason for the unpopularity of the Liberals in British Columbia is the economy, which has never recovered from the recession. The unemployment rate here is 15 percent, second only to Newfoundland. This is a society built on mining and forestry. When housing starts fall in the United States, loggers and sawmill workers are laid off in British Columbia. When copper and zinc prices drop, miners and mill workers are out of a job and head offices in Vancouver lay off clerks.
Turner came to Vancouver this week and faced up to Jack Webster. A British Columbia institution, Mr. Webster is a television talk-show host with a thick Scottish brogue and a reputation for being as tough as a Glasgow street fighter.
He sounded gruff but he went easy on the Liberal leader. Turner went on the attack, saying Brian Mulroney - whose Conservatives have a substantial lead in the polls - is promising more than he can deliver without increasing Canada's budget deficit.
''They wouldn't be able to deliver on those promises. They would have to renege,'' Turner later told a meeting in Vancouver. ''Or they would have to raise taxes for Canadians or they would have to cut social programs, so heavy are these cost figures.''
Turner is not the only Liberal in trouble here. Iona Campagnolo, president of the Liberal Party, is trailing her Tory opponent in Vancouver, according to recent surveys. When the votes are in Sept. 4, the Liberals may again go without a seat in British Columbia.
If the Liberals make any breakthroughs, it will come as quite a surprise. ''Turner is finished unless Mulroney does something extremely foolish,'' says Senator Forsey.
Mulroney also took a chance in this election. He is running in his hometown riding in Quebec, a province that returned one Conservative and 74 Liberals last time. Polls show Mulroney may win his seat, defeating a sitting Liberal, and he may drag a number of Tories along with him.