Canada's bright star fades under scrutiny: Kim Campbell's outspokenness is spoiling her chance of leadership

THERE are growing indications that the bloom has come off Defence Minister Kim Campbell's campaign to succeed the Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney, as leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and head of the national government.

As 4,000 Tories pour into Ottawa for a leadership convention this weekend, a profusion of delegate surveys and public opinion polls have all indicated Canada's initial infatuation with the perky, 46-year-old divorcee from British Columbia on Canada's Pacific coast has cooled.

Although Ms Campbell, an unconventional politician with a habit of shooting from the lip, soared into prominence following Mr Mulroney's announcement in late February that he was quitting politics, her campaign has suffered a series of setbacks, most of them self-induced, during the intervening three months.

It has now become apparent that much of her initial momentum was based on a desire by Conservatives to distance themselves from Mr Mulroney's unpopularity. They reached out to her because she was, of all of the possible successors, the most different from the current prime minister.

Polls taken early in the campaign indicated a Conservative government led by her would restore Tory support and give the party a fighting chance against the Liberals and the Bloc Quebecois, which have been leading the Conservatives by a large margin.

But recently, Liberal support has risen again and Ms Campbell is now facing a strong and potentially fatal challenge for the party leadership, and premiership, from the Environment Minister, Jean Charest. At 34, he is a small-town lawyer who has turned his Quebec origins, flawless bilingualism, and steady political style to his advantage.

The gap is closing as the more Canadians have learnt and observed about Ms Campbell, the less popular she has become. Her biggest problem has been a tart tongue that has often betrayed an intellectual arrogance lurking behind a populist facade.

In one of the nationally televised encounters with the other four leadership candidates, Ms Campbell referred to people who disagreed with her proposals for public spending cutbacks and fiscal reform as 'enemies of Canadians'. In a widely quoted interview with a prominent journalist, the Defence Minister expressed her distaste for apathetic Canadians who shun involvement in political parties, refering to them as 'condescending SOBs'. In another burst of candour, she alienated many Roman Catholics with a glib reference to the 'evil demons of the papacy'.

Ms Campbell's unhappy personal life and her patchy academic record have also come in for intense media scrutiny.

Her problems on the campaign trail were exacerbated by problems in her defence portfolio. At one point she had to break off her tour and return to Ottawa to initiate an inquiry into the deaths of Somali civilians at the hands of Canadian soldiers serving in the United Nations peace-keeping force in Somalia. Four paratroopers were subsequently charged with murder and torture.

In the meantime, Mr Charest has been steadily building support, based on a superior performance in a series of televised debates, and a strong federalist approach to Quebec.

Assuming that Canadians were tired of having leaders from Quebec (for all but a few months of the last 25 years, the prime minister of Canada has been a Quebecker), Ms Campbell has stressed her origins in British Columbia and adopted a very low-key approach to Quebec nationalism and the language question.

Mr Charest has tackled the argument that it is time to choose a non-Quebecker as leader with strong pro-Canada statements and by stressing his ability as a federalist Quebecker to challenge the separatist-leaning Bloc Quebcois. For the moment, Mr Charest's strategy seems to be working better.

(Photograph omitted)

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