CANADA will today get either the first woman prime minister in its history or the youngest.
Kim Campbell, the Defence Minister and a twice-divorced lawyer with a reputation for a tart tongue, was an early favourite to replace Prime Minister Brian Mulroney as head of the Progressive Conservative Party. But her early lead has been diminishing as the novelty of having an outspoken and sometimes racy female candidate has worn off.
Ms Campbell is being challenged by Jean Charest, a bilingual 34-year-old from Quebec, who is the Environment Minister. Mr Charest, the youngest minister in the Government, began as an unlikely candidate. But superior campaigning, including a scintillating performance in nationally televised debates, improved his public profile while Ms Campbell's loose tongue was damaging her chances.
The latest opinion polls reveal that the Conservatives would do substantially better against the Liberal Party with Mr Charest, rather than Ms Campbell, in charge. The Liberals have been ahead of the Conservatives for the past three years and a national election must be held this autumn.
Ms Campbell has a colourful past. The lawyer from British Columbia attracted much media attention when she posed apparently topless for a photographer doing a book on prominent women. The photograph, showing her holding her legal robes in front of her, caused a sensation.
The polls reveal that Mr Charest has a more positive profile, especially in Quebec where he would be better able to confront the separatist party, the Bloc Quebecois.
So the Tories are torn. By picking someone who can win in Quebec, they would gain a major electoral advantage because Quebec accounts for 75 of the 295 seats in parliament. But they then risk losing support in other parts of the country where people think that Quebec has been favoured for too many years.