According to his closest advisers, the prize that Jean Chrétien has sought for almost a decade finally fell within his grasp not long after midnight on the evening of May 2. The moment came near the end of a lengthy meeting of local Liberal partisans in a sweltering high-school gymnasium only 12 km east of the downtown Calgary convention centre where party members from across Canada will elect their next national leader on June 23. The purpose of the meeting was to choose 12 delegates to represent the Calgary East riding association at that convention. And, when officials finished counting the votes, Chrétien supporters had won nine of the delegate positions—the sixth victory for Chrétien in as many meetings that day, in Alberta, Quebec, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Taking stock of the spoils at day’s end, Chrétien’s organizers concluded that the former Liberal cabinet minister had secured enough delegate support to sweep to a crushing first-ballot victory at next month’s convention.
Publicly, Chrétien’s aides were clearly trying not to appear overconfident. “We are not like a telethon, racking up the numbers,” said Chrétien campaign strategist David Collenette. But, privately, other members of Chré-
tien’s team said that they had what they needed. Commitments from among the 5,200 delegates who will be eligible to vote in Calgary, they said, had already reached the level needed to ensure that, barring unexpected reversals, Chrétien would emerge from the June convention as the leader of the opposition—and possibly Canada’s next prime minister. Even Collenette cautiously acknowledged, “If we have won the 2,600 delegates we need, this was probably the week.”
Chrétien’s rivals in the race were reluctant to concede defeat, with the Calgary convention still more than seven weeks away. But MPs Paul Martin, Thomas Wappel, Sheila Copps and John Nunziata were also searching for strategies to stop a runaway finish by the homespun lawyer from Shawinigan, Que. Some advisers for competing camps spoke wistfully of the possibility that Chrétien would offend delegates with a colossal blunder. For his part, Martin said that he would switch his focus during the campaign’s final stage from winning delegate-selection battles to changing the minds of delegates already committed to other candidates. But at least one candidate vying to replace outgoing leader John Turner saw little prospect for success in that strategy—or any
other. Declared Toronto’s Nunziata: “Unless a miracle happens, no effort, big or small, to turn the tide against Chrétien will make a difference.”
Indeed, some Liberals appeared impatient to begin a post-mortem on the leadership campaign. A few criticized a leadership-selection process marred by the recruitment of “instant Liberals” and overtaken by the activities of single-issue interest groups. Others questioned whether Chrétien’s apparently easy victory concealed a dangerous Liberal detachment from political sentiments among voters at large, especially in Quebec, where his opposition to the Meech Lake constitutional accord appeared out of step.
Plainly, however, Chrétien had by last week secured a lead over his rivals that was, if not invincible, certainly impressive. Estimates of support varied from camp to camp in a hotly disputed numbers game. Martin, for one, insisted that Chrétien’s lead was less than decisive at 1,680 delegates, compared with 905 committed to him. By contrast, The Canadian Press, the national news cooperative, awarded Chrétien 2,160 delegates, Martin 637, Sheila Copps 184, Tom Wappel 138 and John Nunziata 16, while 337 delegates remained uncommitted.
But, in Ottawa, strategists for Chrétien claimed to have won 60 per cent of the 3,464 delegates elected by week’s end. As well, they said that they had secured the support of 500 of the 800 ex officio delegates—a group that includes riding presidents, members of provincial legislatures, MPs and senators—who do not need to be chosen by a riding association. If those estimates were correct, Chrétien had the support of a total of 2,568 delegates—enough to decide the leadership on the first ballot.
By any measure, the cagey 56-year-old political veteran has dominated the leadership campaign since before its official start last January. And, from the moment Chrétien stole the opening-gun spotlight with a major speech about national unity timed for the eve of Martin’s campaign launch, he has largely succeeded in controlling the campaign agenda. In speeches laden with emotional appeals to Canadian patriotism, Chrétien has made few promises, equivocated on such thorny questions as tax reform and steered a traditionalist’s course in areas such as the need for a strong central government and progressive social programs.
At the heart of the Chrétien campaign has been a well-funded organization whose key members—among them Ottawa lawyer and longtime policy aide Eddie Goldenberg and campaign manager John Rae—are veterans of
his failed bid for the leadership in 1984. Detractors have derided Chrétien’s reliance on them as a case of yesterday’s advisers guiding yesterday’s man. But even Chrétien’s opponents concede the efficiency of his team. Said Alexander Cameron, an organizer for Martin in Alberta, where the Montreal MP has picked up less than 25 of 290 delegates chosen to date:
“Chrétien’s organization is an awesome thing to watch. It has been in place here since 1984, and he has kept it well maintained.” Added Cameron: “By comparison, we were just not together as a team.” And in Montreal, Brigitte Fortier, an organizer for Sheila Copps, commented, “We were faced with an organization that has been around forever.”
At the same time, Martin has failed to live up to expectations that he would mount a telling challenge to Chrétien. Despite an impressive political pedigree—his father, Paul Martin Sr., was a Liberal cabinet minister for 17 years— Martin has so far been unable to ignite passion. Said Halifax lawyer James Cowan, chairman of Martin’s Nova Scotia campaign: “People don’t seem to be paying attention to the thoughtful contribution Martin has made to this campaign.”
Other analysts said that Martin’s campaign suffered from a lack of competition. According to one senior Martin strategist, his campaign was based on the expectation that the race would attract three or more strong regional candidates—who would bring their delegates to Martin after the first ballot. Said the adviser: “That unravelled when [Winnipeg MP] Lloyd Axworthy dropped out. Then, it became Martin versus Chrétien, and he couldn’t beat him one-on-one.”
In public, Chrétien’s opponents continue to insist that the race is not over. And Martin emphasized to Maclean ’s editors last week that he still expects to win (page 22). Organizers for
Copps, meanwhile, pinned their hopes on the 37-year-old former journalist’s high ratings in popularity polls—where the Hamilton East MP places second to Chrétien among voters at large—and her ability to sway what they insist is soft delegate support for the first-place candidate.
But, for all those scrambling to catch up with
the Chrétien juggernaut, the last lap of the road to Calgary promised to be difficult. Both Copps and Martin hoped for gains in a handful of ridings in eastern Quebec—a hotbed of sentiment in favor of Meech Lake, which both candidates support. But, according to insiders, both campaigns are running short of funds. Indeed, Martin told Maclean ’s that he is spending some of his own money to finance his
campaign. Meanwhile, Wappel, who by some estimates has garnered more delegate support than Copps with his robust anti-abortion stand, appeared poorly placed to break out of that single-issue niche.
And, with the outcome of the June convention increasingly a certainty, some Liberals were already drawing conclusions about their party’s leadership race. One focus of their debate: the apparent contradiction between Chrétien’s success at attracting delegates in Quebec and his rejection of the Meech Lake accord in the only province where support for the constitutional amendment has outweighed opposition to it in recent polls. Said Martin supporter and Quebec MP Jean Lapierre: “People who are active in the party in Quebec now are not representative of the mainstream. The Liberal party in Quebec is a collection of has-beens.” But Chrétien’s Quebec organizer, Larry Wilson, rejected that assertion, claiming that his candidate’s popularity and long-standing support for Quebec’s constitutional demands have overcome doubts about his stance towards the accord. Added Wilson: “Chrétien has been saying the same things for the last 20 years. People identify with that.”
At the same time, many Liberals expressed unhappiness that, in several centres, a zealous anti-abortion faction within the party has turned the leadership campaign into a platform for its views. For his part, James Bradley, a spokesman for the self-styled Liberals for Life, acknowledged that the group has benefited from its ability to produce large blocs of socalled instant Liberals. But that tactic has even raised the ire of anti-abortion Liberals, among them leadership candidate Nunziata. Declared Nunziata: “That group’s purpose is not to be _ members of the Liberal party, but to take it over.”
And in Toronto, Chrétien’s Ontario organizer Patrick Lavelle fretted publicly that the campaign may leave wounds within the party that will remain long after the convention. “No One can guarantee that there is a reservoir of support to draw on after the convention,” said La velle. “What the leadership race « has proven is simply that I Chrétien is the most popular Liberal.” Indeed, despite ~ some dissent over the precise I scale of Chrétien’s populariz ty, the campaign appeared to ü have reached just that conclusion—with a month and a half still to go.
E. KAYE FULTON with LISA VAN DUSEN in Ottawa, BARRY CAME in Montreal and GLEN ALLEN in Halifax
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