The thinly disguised personal animosity and the fury of the exchange between Brian Mulroney and John Turner made it a memorable moment of political theatre. For nearly two electrifying minutes during last Tuesday’s English-language TV debate, the two men attacked each other over the merits of the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement and its potential effect on Canadian sovereignty. Neither argument was conclusive. But the polls quickly showed that most Canadians believed Turner emerged as the winner from the two televised leaders’ debates. That confrontation—the most dramatic of many tough exchanges during the six hours of debate among the three party leaders—may be remembered as the event that transformed Turner from a ridiculed leader into a credible alternative to Mulroney.
It could also mark the moment when a widely anticipated Tory landslide dissolved into a tough election fight. Noted Toronto-based pollster Michael Adams: “Like everyone else, I thought the election had been decided. But there is a surprising degree of volatility among voters. Turner almost single-handedly has managed to turn this election on to his issue: free trade.”
In feet, Adams and his Environics Research Group Ltd. concluded that 46 per cent of Canadians believed that Turner won the debates, compared to 19 per cent for Mulroney and 11 per cent for NDP Leader Edward Broadbent, whose anti-free-trade position paled beside Turner's forceful attack. “There is a distinction to be made between theatrics and passion,” insisted a visibly edgy Broadbent later in the week. “But there will now be a genuine battle for winning this election in a way that there wasn’t before the debates.”
Turner’s campaign got a further boost at week’s end from a quick poll taken by Winnipeg-based Angus Reid Associates Inc. following the debates, which showed that the Liberals and the Conservatives were tied with 35 per cent of the decided voters’ support. The NDP were at 28 per cent.
Liberal workers were clearly elated by Turner’s performance in the debates. Indeed, Maclean’s has learned that party strategists have decided to change their advertising campaigns to feature Turner— previous ads largely ignored him. Said Quebec organizer Guy Sarault: “Finally, Liberals across Canada have laid down their arms against one another.” The most visible signs of unity were campaign appearances in Ottawa and Montreal by former leadership rival Jean Chrétien, who praised Turner’s performance. But Turner aides said that there was nothing surprising about the rave reviews. Said principal secretary Peter Connolly: “Turner was finally able to show Canadians what he was made of, without having to go through the media filter.”
BRUCE WALLACE with LISA VAN DUSEN on Broadbent’s campaign
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