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Quebec issue hangs over vote on prime minister

It's not that often that Americans keep track of the comings and goings of Canadian politics. Many, it's safe to say, can't even name Canada's prime minister much less describe what he stands for.

But this weekend, Canada is going through one of those rare political upheavals that bears close watching, even rapt attention.

After nine years of rule by Brian Mulroney, the country is getting a new prime minister.

And the way it's going about this defines, as much as any other single factor, the big difference between our two countries.

What's happening, specifically, is that Canada's oddly named Progressive Conservative Party is choosing a new leader. It needs one because Mulroney, the most unpopular prime minister in modern Canadian history, is retiring from politics.

So on Sunday afternoon, 3,400 Progressive Conservative delegates meeting in Ottawa will vote on a replacement, someone who will automatically hold down the job until national elections can be held in the fall.

The two leading candidates are Defense Minister Kim Campbell and Environment Minister Jean Charest. If chosen, Campbell would become Canada's first woman prime minister. If he got the job, Charest, 34, would become its youngest.

Both are proteges of Mulroney and both support his moderate policies, so campaigning for Sunday's vote has centered mainly on personal differences. And there are plenty of those to go around.

Other than gender, probably the biggest one is that Charest is a native of Quebec province and Campbell, a lawyer, is from Vancouver on the Pacific coast.

This could be crucial in voting because the Progressive Conservatives are acutely aware that for 23 of the past 25 years, all of Canada's prime ministers have been from mainly French-speaking Quebec. It's time, many argue, for another part of the country to have a chance.

The 46-year-old Campbell figures she is as well qualified as anybody to meet the challenge, having been minister of justice before moving over to defense.

She began her campaign shortly after Mulroney announced on Feb. 24 that he was stepping down. And because of that early start, she goes into Sunday's balloting with what is believed to be a sizable lead in delegate support.

One poll of delegates indicated Campbell would win 43 percent of the votes on the first ballot to Charest's 31 percent. The ultimate winner will have to win 50 percent plus one of the delegate votes.

Despite her clear lead and obvious qualifications, Campbell has turned out to be her own worst enemy, committing one gaffe after another in a series of missteps that could cost her the top job.

Among other things, she has insulted Canada's 40 percent Roman Catholic minority by claiming that Protestantism helped ward off "the evil demons of the papacy."

She has accused people who disagree with her of being "enemies of Canadians" and branded those who remain aloof from party politics "apathetic . . . condescending SOBs."

Another slip that got Campbell into trouble was a bogus claim early in the campaign that she was fluent in French, German, Yiddish and Russian. After her series of verbal gaffes, many in her party were wondering if she could even speak English.

But if Campbell's missteps have made the race closer than it might have been, Charest has narrowed the gap even further with a brilliant, if late, run for the leadership.

Going over the Charest record triggers almost inevitable comparisons to Bill Clinton. Both men are said to have finely tuned political skills given their practical experience, and both are described by friends and enemies as men who think they can talk their way out of any situation.

Charest is indeed a talker, equally eloquent in French or English. Though he clearly lacks Campbell's experience in the more important sectors of government, he did manage to out-talk her in a round of televised debates this spring.

Those debate wins, more than anything else, forced Progressive Conservative delegates to take Charest seriously despite his youth.

But even though Charest hasn't made any missteps on the same level as Campbell, he has suffered from a Canadian version of the "Slick Willie" problem that dogged Clinton. There's feeling among some party delegates that he's too clever, that he regularly sacrifices personal principle to political expediency and that he promises much more than he can deliver.

When Campbell promised to eliminate Canada's $25-billion (U.S.)-a-year budget deficits within five years, for instance, Charest promptly vowed he would do it in four.

And even though Charest admits once having voted for the separatist Parti Quebecois, he now holds himself out as a champion of English and other minority languages in his home province. Critics like to point out, however, that he remained uncharacteristically silent when Quebec was rocked by the provincial government's attempt to further restrict non-French outdoor signs five years ago.

In any case, if Charest is to have any chance, he has to prevent Campbell from winning a first ballot victory among the 3,400 or so Progressive Conservative delegates who have been meeting and partying in Ottawa since Wednesday. If he can do that, his supporters say, Charest then can gain support from three other candidates in the race and topple Campbell in later rounds of voting.

The delegates are chosen by Progressive Conservative officials from among the party's rank-and-file. And unlike delegates to major party conventions in the United States, they aren't bound to vote for any particular candidate.

All the voting is by secret ballot, so delegates can change their minds from round to round without consequence.

Whoever becomes prime minister will have to call a general election by November, the end of the Progressive Conservative mandate. Then Campbell or Charest will be facing an experienced campaigner in Liberal leader Jean Chretien.

Public opinion polls released this past week indicated Charest might fare better against Chretien than Campbell, but only by a percentage point or two.