Defense Chief Leads Canada Party Race

Image as `softer' Conservative bolsters Kim Campbell

DEFENSE Minister Kim Campbell has become the clear favorite to win the leadership of Canada's Progressive Conservative Party and become prime minister.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Feb. 24 announcement that he would resign as party leader and prime minister was a starter pistol's pop for a field of would-be party leaders. Party strategists, and apparently Mr. Mulroney himself, decided that bad polling numbers were not going to rebound and that the party needed a new face to lead the ticket in federal elections this fall.

As of March 15, the leadership race still had no formally declared candidates, although that is expected to change soon.

The striking element of the race so far has been Ms. Campbell's rocket start. She has amassed, in a matter of weeks, the keys to success: money, insider support across Canada, and good polling numbers. An early Gallup poll showed that with her as party leader, Conservatives would close the gap in popular support with the Liberal Party. Fast track

A former political science professor who entered political life as a member of the Vancouver School Board in 1981, Campbell was elected to the House of Commons in 1988. Her fast-track career has included the high-profile posts of minister of state for Indian affairs in 1989 and minister of justice, which she was named in February 1990. She was appointed the nation's first woman defense minister in a January Cabinet shuffle.

Part of the reason for her climb is that Campbell, as a relative newcomer to Mulroney's Cabinet, has not been heavily tarred by his fiscal policies, which have included unpopular cuts to social programs. She also is considered a softer Conservative, taking uncharacteristic positions such as open support for gay rights.

"I think there's a yearning to find something that binds us and some way of defining us and some way of feeling that Canada really is something," Campbell told the Monitor in December. "I think that's one of the things people in public life have a responsibility to do - to find the language that encapsulates the ideas and the feelings that make community life a reality."

David Bellamy, a political science professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, says Conservatives "have found a way to resuscitate themselves by playing down the old gang - the hard-headed neoconservatives - and to put forward a more sublime sort of person, which is what Kim Campbell is purported to be."

The Conservative field has rapidly narrowed as opponents, finding a dearth of money and support, have dropped out. Deputy Prime Minister Donald Mazankowski announced March 2 that he would not run. Three days later International Trade Minister Michael Wilson said he would not run either. External Affairs Minister Barbara McDougall withdrew her name March 14. The next day Minister of Communications Perrin Beatty also stepped aside. Mulroney prods competition

With so many prominent faces bowing out, Conservatives have a new worry. News reports suggest Mulroney fears a Conservative Party "coronation" of Campbell. Analysts say that would be both a tactical and public relations problem since Canadians want to see Campbell earn her victory and be forced to explain her views to challengers. On a tactical level, strategists are concerned the media limelight will fade prematurely, when it had been hoped to continue until the party's June convention.

To address that problem, Mulroney reportedly has been working behind the scenes to recruit competition. Mr. Mazankowski, for example, is reported to be reconsidering his decision at Mulroney's urging. But Hugh Segal, Mulroney's chief of staff, denied in an interview that the prime minister was recruiting.

"It wouldn't be our role to do any of that," Mr. Segal said. "We know there will be a range of four to five candidates at least - so by definition that's not a coronation." His statement, however, came before Ms. McDougall and Mr. Beatty withdrew. Remaining contenders include:

r Jean Charest, the 34-year-old minister of environment. Mr. Charest is relatively unsullied by unpopular Conservative fiscal policies, but his youth has, according to some, become a liability.

r Bernard Valcourt, minister of employment and immigration. Hailing from New Brunswick, the French-Canadian is popular among many Anglophones, but he is considered by some to be a long shot because he is not widely popular in Quebec.

Despite her surprising early strength, Campbell has been caught up in a growing and potentially dangerous controversy over a $4.4 billion (Canadian; US$3.5 billion) contract to purchase 50 high-performance helicopters orginally designed to hunt submarines. With the cold war over and social programs being cut, Campbell is under attack by opposition leaders who say the purchase is unwarranted.

But the mere fact that Campbell has done so well so far encourages many, including less-conservative party elements.

"My personal morale has gone up tremendously since [Mulroney's] resignation," says Conservative Sen. Hugh Macquarrie, a self-described "Red Tory" whose strong liberal-nationalist bias has conflicted with Mulroney's neoconservative policies. Senator Macquarrie says he likes Campbell and considers her a fellow Red Tory.

"I think she will have sufficient flair that she will allow people to forget the gloom of the past and the misdemeanors of the government, and have them look at a new day," he says.

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