By PAUL ADAMS and MARK MacKINNON
Globe and Mail Update
Ottawa The election campaign continued its slide into bitter personal invective Monday, with Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark calling Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien a "liar," and Mr. Chrétien warning supporters to brace themselves for more of what he called "character assassination."
The latest in a series of harsh exchanges among the party leaders started Monday when Mr. Clark was asked about a nasty new ad campaign his party is running. The ad promotes a mock CD of 101 of "Jean Chrétien's Greatest Lies." Mr. Clark told reporters that the commercials are fair and accurate, that Mr. Chrétien is, indeed, a liar.
"He did lie. He lied to Canadians about the GST, he lied about the free-trade agreement," Mr. Clark said while campaigning in Kanata, Ont. "That is not the kind of conduct one should have from the Prime Minister of the country."
Mr. Clark also seemed to take a poke at Mr. Chrétien's intelligence, saying that when the Liberal Leader talks about whether or not there is a brain drain, "I'm not sure how he'd know."
Mr. Clark later said he was just "making a joke within the bounds of the campaign."
All this comes on the heels of increasingly sharp attacks on Mr. Chrétien by Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day. On the weekend, Mr. Day implied that Mr. Chrétien had been "corrupted" by power.
Speaking to a rally of local Ottawa Liberals Monday evening, Mr. Chrétien said, "You can see at this moment the tone of the campaign is changing. After more than two weeks they are going nowhere. They don't talk any more about their platform. Now they're moving on name-calling, on character assassination."
He predicted that it would get worse in the days to come. However, he claimed he would stay above the fray, quoting former Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson as saying "those who throw mud lose ground."
Mr. Chrétien refused to respond to Mr. Clark's attack directly, preferring to aim his fire at Mr. Day. The Liberals have been trying to consign the Tories to irrelevance in this campaign, preferring to characterize the election as a straight fight between them and the Alliance.
In his speech to the Liberal rally, Mr. Chrétien said that he would confine himself to talking about Mr. Day's policies, but his comments were sharp and aggressive. He said that on the very day that his government had passed the Firearms Registration Act, Mr. Day had gone out and bought a handgun.
"It's a statement," Mr. Chrétien told reporters later. "He has a right to buy a gun. We have a right to buy a gun in Canada. But it's a statement."
A spokesman for Mr. Day said last night that Mr. Chrétien had it wrong. Mr. Day had purchased a "collector's firearm" prior to the passage of the Liberals' legislation, in an attempt to illustrate that there were already stringent controls on the sale of firearms.
The Day spokesman phoned back a few minutes later simply to say that Mr. Chrétien was practising the politics of "fear and destruction."
Soon afterwards, a spokesman for Mr. Chrétien acknowledged the mistake. In a statement he said, "the Prime Minister got the dates wrong, but Day has his priorities wrong."
Earlier in the day, the Alliance Leader tried to brush off questions about his own recent flights of rhetoric. He said that reporters had been wrong to conclude that when he attacked Mr. Chrétien for surrounding himself with a "power corporation" that this was a reference to Power Corp. the Montreal conglomerate of which Mr. Chrétien's son-in-law is president and his campaign director is vice-president.
Mr. Day said it was a "stretch on the part of some of you folks [reporters]" to suggest that he was referring to the company rather than the "power elite" that surrounds Mr. Chrétien.