PRESTON MANNING is just about the nicest old boy in boots and stetson you're likely to meet anywhere north of the 49th parallel.
Sure, his voice is a touch squeaky and his unfashionable wire-rim eyeglasses give him the look of a perpetually startled owl. But his smile is warm and genuine and just sings out honesty and steadfastness.
And that makes Mr. Manning, head of the Western-based Reform Party, the hottest political leader in Canada today. There is a crisis in English-French relations in Canada. There's a national-debt crisis, a financing crisis in the public health system, and maybe a public schools crisis brewing. But none of these mean anything compared to the leadership crisis that wracks Canada.
Canadians neither like nor trust the leaders of the three mainstream political parties: the governing Progressive Conservatives, the opposition Liberals, or the social democratic party, the New Democrats.
And as national confidence in the country's shopworn political leadership has fallen, Manning's star has soared. If an election were held today, Reformers would take virtually every seat in Manning's home province of Alberta - most probably including those now occupied by former Tory Prime Minister Joe Clark and the present Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Don Mazankowski - as well as a sprinkling of constituencies in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, and perhaps more in Manitoba and in rural and northern Ontario.
Given the hopelessly divided state of Canadian public opinion and the weakness of the mainstream parties, that might well mean that Manning and the Reformers would hold the balance of power in the next national parliament. Not a bad start for a party that will celebrate its fifth anniversary this month.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, whose winning electoral coalition of Western conservatives and pro-business, nationalist Quebecers is in peril, now pays Manning the compliment of his active dislike. The Conservatives have launched a negative advertising campaign against the Reform Party in the West, and the prime minister has accused Manning of threatening the country's future.
"The Reform Party stands for Canada without Quebec," says Mr. Mulroney.
Manning reacts to these attacks with a pained look and a sad shrug as if to say, "What can you expect from a politician?" But he does not deny that he and the Reform Party will use whatever leverage the voters accord them to change the way Canada is run. He is anxious to prove that Reform, unlike the other parties, really does stand for something.
Reform has vowed to defeat any governing coalition that refuses to slash government spending. It will demand that government programs supporting bilingualism and multicultural activities be abandoned. It will seek to end most foreign-aid spending, and, in an effort to balance the federal budget, it will insist on cuts to federal spending on health care, universities, and old-age security payments.
But Manning wants to alter the way all Canadians think of their country in an even more fundamental sense. He has said: "We'd ask voters to choose between the Old Canada and the New Canada. Old Canada is a Canada where government chronically overspends and where there's a constitutional preoccupation with French and English relations. In New Canada, governments would be fiscally responsible and we'd go beyond English-French relations as the centerpiece of constitutional discussions."
Manning is determined to take a sharp stick to the sorest spot on the body politic. For decades, Canadians have wrestled uncomfortably with their identity.
* Is Canada a country of two founding peoples where French Canadians should enjoy a large number of exceptional rights and privileges in their home province of Quebec that are not available to Canadians in other provinces? Most Quebecers would say yes.
* Is Canada a multicultural, predominantly English-speaking country where a French-speaking minority should have some limited constitutional recognition and protection? That's what most federalists have been arguing for decades.
* Or is Canada a nation of 10 equal provinces and two territories in which all citizens, regardless of their language or background, should have precisely the same rights and status? That's the formula Manning and his backers endorse.
Hence, the prime minister's claims that Manning and his Reformers will inevitably drive Quebecers out of the Canadian federation.
The Reform Party message resonates strongly with citizens who believe they are badly governed, over-governed, and unfairly governed.
The populist message is sweet music to those who crave less regulation and less government intrusion in their daily lives. But it also speaks strongly to Canadians who believe that the political life of their land has been monopolized by an elite of bilingual lawyers, political hacks, and bureaucrats from the big, industrial, central provinces of Ontario and Quebec.
Many Westerners charge that French Canadians have a huge, unjust advantage in securing plum federal jobs because they speak both of Canada's official languages. And this same Western crowd that feels disenfranchised claims that the Quebecois linguistic elite manipulates the rules of national life to maintain a stranglehold on federal power. Some critics say that Reformers are anti-French racists. And Manning concedes that: "If you turn on a light, you're going to attract bugs."
But he's tossed all the blatant bigots out of the party and kept his rhetoric unfailingly moderate. Reformers promise that their plain talk about the issues central Canadian liberals won't confront will reinvigorate Canadian democracy.
Reform also proposes national referendums on major policy issues, the recall of politicians by discontented voters, and an elected Senate in which all 10 provinces have equal representation.
Manning was born to be a politician who campaigned against politicians. His father, Ernest Manning, was leader of the Social Credit Party and the premier of Alberta from 1943 to 1968. Premier Manning's government was populist, right-wing, and honestly and conservatively administered. Though his Social Credit Party was purged of the bizarre economics and vague anti-Semitism of its origins, Premier Manning was a strong evangelical Christian and a deeply committed Western regionalist.
Preston, who was born in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1942, is himself an evangelical Christian who neither smokes nor drinks. He is the father of three daughters. Before launching the Reform Party, Preston worked with his father as a business consultant, mostly to large Western Canadian utilities and oil companies.
In the federal by-election in the spring of 1989, Reform elected its first member of Parliament, Deborah Grey, a schoolteacher, who defeated candidates from all the mainstream parties to take an Alberta seat.
Reform has already made tremendous inroads into the Conservatives' constituency. But it also is gnawing away at the Liberal and New Democratic vote, attracting angry populists of the left as well as the right. There are an awful lot of Canadians today who don't believe the country should be so hard to govern as it seems to be. They don't believe it should be so complicated and time-consuming to make change.
They want to know why constitution-making must take decades instead of weeks, why the federal budget can't be balanced, why their politicians say one thing before the election and another after.
If Mulroney and his Tories can strike a deal with Quebec - without appearing to give too much to the Quebecois nationalists who want autonomy - Reform will probably not spread much beyond Alberta. As a regional party with limited representation in the federal House of Commons, it would soon wither away or be gobbled up by the Conservatives. But if no bargain with Quebec can be struck, or if Mulroney is perceived to have sold out to Quebec's slow-motion sovereigntists, the Reform Party will become a hugel y significant national force.
Right now, Reform has a trusted and popular leader and a briefcase full of simple answers to complicated questions. But the unmaking of Canada would be the making of Preston Manning.