WITH less than three weeks left before Canadian voters go to the polls to elect a new government, Prime Minister Kim Campbell's Progressive Conservative Party has fallen behind Jean Chretien's Liberal Party.
Just past the midway point in Canada's federal election campaign, Canadians are beginning to make decisions on which of five parties would best boost the struggling economy, cut the ballooning federal deficit, and - most of all - create jobs for this nation's 1.6 million unemployed.
Various polls show Conservatives 8 to 12 percentage points behind the Liberals, says John Hughes, a pollster at Gallup Canada. ``The Conservatives are in a fair amount of trouble,'' he says. And Ms. Campbell appeared not to gain any significant momentum from televised debates earlier this week, analysts say.
That news would be bad enough in an ordinary election campaign. But catching up may be more difficult since this election is far from ordinary, with five instead of three parties in contention.
In addition to its Liberal foe, Campbell's Conservatives must fight two upstart parties that have greatly eroded Conservative support in its traditional strongholds: Canada's western provinces and Quebec.
In Quebec, the separatist Bloc Qucois (BQ) led by Lucien Bouchard, has virtually wiped out Conservative support by gathering a massive protest vote even among those who favor Quebec remaining a part of Canada. At this point the BQ appears set to win most of Quebec's 75 seats in Canada's 295-seat House of commons.
In the western provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, Ms. Campbell's problem is just as serious. Preston Manning's Alberta-based Reform Party has captured former-Conservatives in part by talking tougher than Campbell on the nation's debt and deficit problem. Mr. Manning says he would eliminate the nation's annual $35.5 billion deficit (Canadian; US$26.6 billion) in just three years. Campbell says she would do it in five - without raising taxes.
``Kim Campbell has helped Reform out by undermining her own credibility on the question of the deficit,'' says Richard Johnston, professor of political science at the University of British Columbia. ``She was too worried about the Liberals and not worried enough about [satisfying] that part of the population most concerned about deficit. Those people have gone over to the Reform Party.''
And the collapse of the New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Audrey McLaughlin, has united left-leaning supporters with the Liberal Party in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.
Campbell's slide began shortly after she announced Sept. 8 that the election would be held Oct. 25. At that time her personal popularity had reached a new high, and that helped lift public support for her party to about the same as that of Chretien's Liberals.
Since then, however, she has made several high-profile gaffes. At one point she told a crowd of reporters that she could not give details of her plans for reforms to the country's social safety net, saying it was not an issue that could be addressed adequately during the short campaign.
CHRETIEN and others quickly assailed her for being elitist, or perhaps having a hidden agenda. NDP leader Audrey McLaughlin, whose party opposes free trade and cuts to social programs, released a document she claimed revealed a secret Conservative agenda to cut health care and other benefits - only after the election was won.
``Jobs, jobs, jobs'' was the promise that led former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservative Party a big victory in 1984. But the reality of an 11.6 percent national unemployment rate is threatening his successor's job.
Campbell's strategists chose to focus on the deficit. But her main opponent, Chretien, has put jobs first and deficit cutting second, promising instead a multibillion dollar infrastructure building plan to put Canadians back to work.
Despite Campbell's argument that Canada can't afford that kind of plan, Chretien's more direct ``jobs'' message suddenly appears to be picking up voters whose anger with Mulroney's Conservative Party has not been assuaged by Campbell's best efforts.
For Campbell to come back, she will have to convince the likes of George Triantafilidis to vote Conservative again.
``The last time [in 1988], I voted Conservative,'' says Mr. Triantafilidis in broken English, lifting a fork to poke at the hot dogs warming on his hot dog cart by a bus station in a southeast Toronto neighborhood.
``I don't mind voting for a woman. But I found out they [Conservatives] support the rich. So I will vote Liberal this time.''