THE race to succeed Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in the Progressive Conservative Party, all but locked up a month ago, has become a sprint to the finish.
Defense Minister Kim Campbell took an early lead after Mr. Mulroney, dogged by low approval ratings, announced his resignation Feb. 24. She appeared the Conservative's best hope for putting on a fresh face and extending their nine-year hold on power when Canadians vote in fall elections. She gained support rapidly, and more experienced hands moved aside.
But her momentum has stalled. Polls of 3,850 delegates to Sunday's leadership convention in Ottawa show Ms. Campbell's rival, 34-year-old Environment Minister Jean Charest of Quebec, quickly closing the gap. Underscoring that trend, well-respected former Prime Minister Joe Clark on Monday endorsed Mr. Charest.
Charest is now gaining, party insiders say, but Campbell is still significantly ahead in the number of committed delegates with little time to go. "Many delegates were chosen early," and some may be swaying, says a party official. "I don't think the slippage is going to be enough for Charest to catch her."
A lawyer from Vancouver, British Columbia, who has held senior government postings, Campbell has the right credentials. She can attract needed support for her party from the west. She is also the "right" gender, boasts insider support (some say Mulroney hand-picked her), and has money. Many pundits favor her to win.
Part of Charest's surge in the polls can be attributed to a series of stumbles by Campbell, including one interview in which she alienated Roman Catholics by referring to the "evils of the papacy." She also angered many voters by sounding a lot like Mulroney when she called those who opposed plans to reduce the nation's debt "enemies of Canada."
A poll published June 7 by the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto showed 43 percent of about 4,000 convention delegates favor Campbell, while 31 percent support Charest.
The rest are undecided or aligned with one of three other candidates. A poll published last week in the Financial Post showed an even narrower Campbell lead, with 46 percent saying they would vote for her on a first ballot, and 41 percent favoring Charest.
While Campbell's problems have been heavily influenced by the high expectations set early on for her, Charest began with two strikes against him - his youth and his Quebec home. Because a long line of prime ministers have come from the French-speaking province, pundits and pollsters say the public wants a prime minister from a different province for a change.
CHAREST, however, appears to have blunted the complaint about his age by outperforming Campbell in a series of debates across Canada. His fluent English may also have reduced concerns that his Quebec heritage is a political liability.
"I was leaning toward Campbell at the start, but I'm now neutral," says Charles Murray, a delegate from Long Reach, New Brunswick. "Based on talking to some others, I'd say there may be some Campbell delegates who regret their decision."
Campbell's delegate support is said to be "soft" and Charest's much more solid. But either candidate, observers warn, could fall victim to the "Flora MacDonald syndrome." Ms. MacDonald was leading contender for the party leadership in 1976 and had amassed strong support among delegates. But the number of delegates entered polling booths wearing her pin far outnumbered votes she received, and her opponent won.
Another wild card is the block of about 800 to 1,000 party faithful. These include members of Parliament, senators, executive office holders, all of whom are unlikely to show their true colors because they have to work with whomever wins.
"My guess is that group is fairly solidly for Campbell, and that will push her over top," Mr. Murray says.