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CANADIANS want change. They can feel the political structure that has governed the country for the last eight years crumbling. And they believe that the nation is mired in an economic and political morass that makes progress impossible.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's decision to retire has made change inevitable. Canadians are looking for someone who, like President Clinton to the south, can provide a positive account of that change, someone who can claim to be master, not victim, of circumstances.

Mr. Mulroney's success lay in building a coalition that brought together the Tories' traditional constituency in the Canadian West with a massive bloc of voters in his home province of Quebec.

Ideologically, the coalition was broad and unusual in Canadian politics. Mulroney's Tory Party accommodated hard-line, right-wing Westerners who wanted little government and less taxation, medieval social policies, and no state support for bilingualism and multiculturalism. The party also comfortably housed Red Tories who were pragmatic about economic matters but opposed the death penalty, favored easy and publicly financed access to abortion, and promoted bilingualism.

Although Mulroney was profoundly unpopular by the end of his career, his party was clearly master of the big social and economic issues of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Tories resisted right-of-center pressure to restore the death penalty and to limit abortion, while overcoming left-of-center resistance to a free-trade deal with the United States, to deregulation and trimming government overspending, and to shifting taxes from manufacturing to consumption.

But Mulroney's administration fell victim to the perennial Canadian forces of disunity - differences of language and race. With Robert Bourassa, his powerful Quebec partner, Mulroney twice sought in the last decade to rewrite the Canadian constitution in a way that would reflect Quebeckers' desires for special political recognition and status.

Both attempts ended in failure and left Canadians with a sense of deep fatigue with their politicians and with constitutional negotiations. Oddly enough, however, the failure of constitution-making has not left the country feeling any more disunified than usual.

While many Canadians now see the Mulroney-Bourassa era as a time of constitutional frustration and economic failure, history may well be kind to the two.

They presided over a period of intense national assertion in Quebec, when French-speaking Qucois took control of their provincial economy and most other levers of power. With growing self-assertion came demands for separation from Canada or at least for a new deal with Canada.

Mulroney and Mr. Bourassa never succeeded in negotiating the renewed federalism that the Qucois wanted or in selling to Quebeckers the very different vision of Canada shared by most English Canadians. But they saw to it that Quebeckers got their share - and more - in federal benefits. Although Canadian politicians failed to create a new Canada during the Mulroney-Bourassa era, they managed by incessant talk to preserve the old Canada that had seemed doomed.

Today, the federal political scene in Canada seems somehow both crowded and empty. Mulroney is profoundly unpopular and his party little better off.

All available public-opinion polls shows Liberal Party leader Jean Chretien is a cinch to win the next election. But Mr. Chretien, a veteran of the Trudeau period of Liberal dominance in Canadian politics, lacks the fresh energy to embody generational change.

Audrey McLaughlin, the New Democratic Party leader, has failed to capture the public imagination - even within her party. The conservative revolution in the English-speaking democracies during the 1980s dragged the center of Canadian politics far enough to the right to make the New Democrats quest for credibility increasingly difficult.

Preston Manning, the leader of the Western Canada-based Reform Party, has succeeded in selling himself as a candidate of change, but not of the sort that anyone outside a small circle of very conservative Westerners is ready to accept.

Lucien Bouchard, of the Bloc Qucois, may take many seats away from Tories and keep them out of the hands of Liberals in Quebec, but he can only undercut coalitions not build them.

Because of the weakness on the stage of Canadian federal politics, the Tories could yet engineer a miraculous comeback. If they choose a Clintonesque leader at their convention in June and campaign vigorously on the issue of change, they could sweep back into power this fall.

But voters will require that the change within the Tory party be genuine. The status quo is too enervated, too laden with failed dreams and unrealized promises.

The Tory candidate who in the very early going seems to best answer the public mood is Kim Campbell, a brilliant trilingual (English, French and Russian) lawyer and academic from Vancouver, British Columbia. She served briefly but effectively in the Mulroney Cabinet as justice minister and has just been shifted to defense. She can be arrogant, obstinate, and brittle. But she is smarter, more learned, and generally better equipped to offer renewal than any of her potential opponents among Tories. Polls sa y that she is the only leadership candidate who has a good shot at keeping the party in power.

The Tory record would be a weighty burden for Ms. Campbell to bear in the general election this fall. Nevertheless, she may be the only federal politician who can drag the country out of its ennui and into a new era.

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