The turnout was impressive—even if 200 people might normally be considered a disappointing crowd for the silver-tongued premier of Newfoundland. The dinner in question took place on Dec. 10, more than a month before the hoopla of the provincial election campaign, which kicked off last week. In return for the pleasure of hearing Brian Tobin hold forth, each person in the room had to contribute $1,000 to the Newfoundland Liberal party. The twist: the venue was the Hotel Vancouver, a country-width away from Tobin’s home turf. “I was blown away,” admits one adviser to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who hit up some of the same British Columbia Grits at a Vancouver fund-raiser two days earlier. “For a Newfoundland premier to come all the way across the country and get a crowd like this in the dead of December is amazing.”

Tobin has undeniable drawing power. Last March, 150 Montrealers dropped $1,000 each to listen to the premier—and potential federal Liberal leadership candidate—speak at a party fund-raiser. A month later,

350 Torontonians paid a total of $350,000 for the same privilege. Liberals are not the only people who

want to hear the former federal fish-____

eries minister: Matthew Barrett, the chairman of the Bank of Montreal, has entertained Tobin, along with a roomful of Bay Street heavyweights, during lunch at the bank’s Toronto headquarters. And in Newfoundland, where Tobin’s party sat at 60-per-cent support among decided voters before the Jan. 18 election call, analysts say he seems poised for an easy walk to victory on Feb. 9, despite being a mere three years into his mandate—and even Newfoundland Liberals concede he has no real issue on which to run. “It is so transparent,” admits a prominent St. John’s businessman and Liberal. “This is pure political opportunism and everyone knows that.”

Stumping across the province last week, Tobin said he needs a new mandate from the voters to negotiate with Inco Ltd. over the stalled Voisey’s Bay nickel development in Labrador, and to sit down across the table from the Quebec government to iron out a pact to develop the $ 12-billion Lower Churchill Falls hydroelectric project. “The government of Newfoundland needs to be able to deal from a position of strength in both of these matters to ensure any deals are in the best interests of Newfoundlanders,” he told Maclean’s. But Liberals say Tobin, whose party has 36 of 48 legislative seats, called a premature provincial runoff against a hapless opposition simply to get it out of the way. His real focus: preparing to take on federal Finance Minister Paul Martin, Health Minister Allan Rock and any other comers for the federal Liberal leadership when Chrétien, as anticipated,

Brian Tobin eyes a bigger prize: the Prime Minister’s job

finally steps down. “A person would have to be in serious denial not to conclude that Tobin is already laying the groundwork,” concludes one well-connected Ottawa Liberal.

Many Liberals view Tobin’s fund-raisers, which helped wipe out the provincial party’s 50-year-old debt, as nothing more than a bid to raise his national profile. Party insiders also claim that Tobin, who takes weekly French lessons, wants to use the Lower Churchill negotiations to demonstrate that he can deal with Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard and his separatist government. Most of all, they contend that when he argues, as Tobin did in last March’s Newfoundland throne speech, that “the moral test of a society is not found in the books of accountants, but in the care of the sick, respect for the elderly and the education of children,” he is trying to set himself up as the federal leadership candidate of the party’s left—those Liberals desperately searching for someone to stop the deficit-preoccupied Martin, but who have never really warmed to Rock.

When confronted directly on the leadership question, Tobin certainly does not talk like someone eager to seek the big job. “The Prime Minister and I have a good chuckle about all this speculation,” he said in an interview last week. “He knows and I know that Jean Chrétien will be leader for a third election. I will probably be retired before he is, and many of the names now in the spotlight will be long forgotten by the time Jean Chrétien decides to leave.” The words sound sincere enough. But Tobin’s eyes have always been firmly fixed on the horizon. He is, after all, a fireman’s son who grew up on an American air force base in Stephenville, Nfld., where his father was a civilian employee. He was an undistinguished student at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s, who went on to become a long-haired disc jockey and later earned the nickname “Thumbs Tobin” because of his clumsiness in the control booth of a St. John’s radio station.

His political education began in 1977, when he took a job as executive assistant to Bill Rowe, leader of the Newfoundland Liberal party, which was then the official opposition to Frank Moores’ Conservative government. Three years later, when the federal party needed a candidate to run in the traditionally Tory riding of Humber/St. Barbe/Baie Verte on Newfoundland’s west coast, the 25-year-old political neophyte entered the race—and surprised even himself by winning. In Ottawa, his youth, quick tongue and aggressiveness made him a charter member of the Liberal Rat Pack— which also included Sheila Copps, now federal heritage minister—that made its name by ruthlessly attacking Brian Mulroney’sTory government.

He quickly demonstrated well-honed political instincts. His strategic advice was a critical factor in Liberal leader John Turner’s compelling antifree-trade performance during the televised debates that almost turned around the 1988 federal election for the Liberals. And Chrétien leaned on him repeatedly for communications know-how during his 1990 leadership campaign. During the federal election three years later, Tobin, along with fellow Rat Packer David Dingwall and key Chrétien aide Warren Kinsella, ran the Liberal war room, dictating day-to-day strategy as they wiped out

the ruling Tories. “Brian is what is known as a good brief,” stresses Kinsella, now a lawyer and consultant in Toronto, who helped organize Tobin’s fund-raiser lunch there last year. “He has an uncanny ability to ingest huge amounts of information on complex issues, digest it and then make quick, informed decisions.”

Indecision has never handicapped Tobin. Appointed fisheries minister in 1993, he made conservation his buzzword, steering a bill through Parliament that allows Canada to seize fishing vessels operating under flags of convenience. Then, in 1995, came his shining moment—a bold decision to seize a Spanish trawler while it fished for turbot along the Grand Banks. The world media labelled him “Captain Canada” after he stood on a barge in New York’s East River, across from United Nations headquarters, displaying a net from the Spanish trawler and lamenting the ravages inflicted on Canada’s fishing grounds by foreign overfishing. “We’re down now finally to one last lonely, unattractive little turbot,” he declared memorably, “clinging on by its fingertips to the Grand Banks, saying, ‘Someone reach out and save me in this eleventh hour.’ ”

If anything, his star within the federal caucus rocketed even higher later that year after his idea for a massive federalist rally in Montreal gave a boost to the No side on the eve of a razor-thin victory in the Quebec referendum. Little wonder that so many eyebrows were raised in Ottawa when Tobin decided to head home in 1996 after Clyde Wells resigned as Newfoundland premier. Tobin, who skis a little, spends most of his free time with his wife, Jodean, and their three children, took the party leadership unopposed—

then handily won the election that followed. But much as he denied it, the view persisted in Liberal circles that his return to Newfoundland was all part of some grand strategy to demonstrate he could govern a province before making a run for the federal leadership.

Tobin inherited a province in the midst of wrenching change— the cod fishery gone, the riches of the Hibernia offshore oilfield, Voisey’s Bay and the Lower Churchill still to come. But so far, as the opinion polls indicate, he has had few missteps. He skilfully brought in legislation ending centuries of church control over the school system, and landed the Canada Winter Games, which begin in Corner Brook on Feb. 20. Tobin’s decision not to allow development of Voisey’s Bay to go ahead until Inco agrees to build a smelter in Newfoundland only seemed to shore up support among Newfoundlanders. “He’s done a good job,” says Stephen Tomblin, a political science professor at Memorial University. “Having no real opposition helps, but he’s been untouched by scandals—and has dealt with some troublesome issues.”

That seems to spell a tough uphill fight for Ed Byrne, who became Tory leader by acclamation last March, but has still been unable to quiet criticism of his party’s ineffectiveness in the house of assembly, where it holds 10 seats. The race looks even grimmer for NDP Leader Jack Harris, who holds his party’s lone seat. For the opposition, the picture could be rosier next time around—as this campaign swings into gear, Tobin may already be thinking of bigger things.