Seeking economic boost, Canadians look for signs of political friendship between Mulroney and Clinton

CAN Canada's prime minister, Brian Mulroney, succeed a third time?

The question is not whether he can manage a third electoral victory in a federal election that must be held this year, but whether he can make friends with the third president of the United States to hold power since he took office in 1984.

Because the US is so important to Canada, people here always look for signs of how their leader relates to the US president. Especially with a sour economy, 11 percent unemployment, and a desire for smoother trade relations with its biggest trading partner, many Canadians hope warm head-of-state relations and a US economic turnaround will help lift their country's economy.

By tradition the Canadian prime minister is the first head of state to meet the new American president. So Canadians were looking closely for any signs beyond the usual pleasantries at the podium after the two met on Feb. 5.

Looking at the two men pictured on the front page left some wondering. President Clinton looked presidential and aloof. Prime Minister Mulroney looked a bit anxious.

It was not that way with Ronald Reagan. The two leaders with the Irish names sang "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" on stage in Ottawa. In Canada, news commentators saw a political mistake in the prime minister's cozy relations with the American president.

But little changed with George Bush. Mulroney was quick to support the US in the Gulf war, and the two agreed that the US plan to negotiate a free-trade deal with Mexico would also include Canada. The US and Canada had initialed a free-trade deal months before Mr. Bush took office.

The view from here is that Mulroney and Mr. Clinton will not be so chummy. Few Canadians know the new president. But judging from news reports and TV, the two are different men.

There are concerns that Clinton might be put off by Mulroney's "conservative" label, perhaps thinking the Canadian leader is in the same league with Ronald Reagan or even Margaret Thatcher.

He needn't worry. The title of Mulroney's party is Progressive Conservative, and some of his colleagues would make most US Democrats blush on "liberal" issues. This is, after all, a country with a European-style social safety net, with everything from a health-care system completely financed by the government to "baby bonuses" - checks sent out to families with children.

The American president is said to be cool to world leaders, such as Britain's John Major, who supported George Bush. Prime Minister Mulroney, too, is thought to have made a faux pas when, on his way back from Florida, he dropped in to spend a weekend with Bush at Camp David prior to Clinton's inaugural.

The relationship between the Canadian prime minister and the American president is regarded as highly important here. The raffish John Kennedy and the stodgy John Diefenbaker did not get on in the early 1960s. Lyndon Johnson was downright rude to Lester Pearson. Nonetheless, the two men managed to work out a landmark trade deal, the 1965 Auto Pact.

That pact became the first plank in freer trade that allowed auto manufacturers to move cars and car parts freely across the border. Today the new North American Free Trade Agreement has become the focal point. No one here knows how Clinton really feels about it.

There is also a feeling here that Clinton and his advisers know Mulroney is behind in public opinion polls for the forthcoming election. It may seem quite possible to the White House that, before the end of the year, Clinton will be forming a relationship with a new Canadian prime minister.

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