By BRIAN LAGHI
Globe and Mail Update
Markham, Ont. Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien leaned on his elected colleagues for support Monday after a new poll showed that Canadians increasingly doubt his ability to continue leading them.
Declaring that he is only the coach of the Liberal administration, Mr. Chrétien told about 300 listeners in this Toronto suburb that voters must ask themselves which team is best-suited to lead the country.
The remarks appear to be an effort to put voters' focus on the Liberal brand name rather than on the leader, whose popularity has been on the wane.
"As you all know, a government is not a one-man show," Mr. Chrétien said. "History shows that the best governments are those with the best teams."
The comments came on the day a poll published by The Globe and Mail showed a dip in Liberal fortunes after last week's two all-candidates debates. The drop was accompanied by a more precipitous fall in Mr. Chrétien's popularity.
Monday, the Liberal Leader harked back to the 1993 campaign during which Canadians had similar concerns about his ability to lead.
In his 1993 campaign, the Liberals emphasized their team of candidates as a way of assuaging doubts about Mr. Chrétien's ability to govern. In the 1997 campaign, when the party began to sag in the polls, Mr. Chrétien also tried to shift the limelight toward some of his more popular ministers such as Paul Martin and Allan Rock.
Liberal sources said that Mr. Martin, the Finance Minister, is now scheduled to share the stage with Mr. Chrétien, for only the second time in the campaign, at a rally in Vancouver on Friday.
"Just ask yourself who is the Alliance team, who is the Conservative team, the NDP team," Mr. Chrétien told his audience Monday.
"In this election, we are offering you a great team."
To buttress his argument, Mr. Chrétien introduced one of the few new faces his party has recruited for the 2000 campaign, noted economist John McCallum.
However, the Liberals have attracted few other stars. All but a handful of the 101 Liberal MPs elected in Ontario in 1997 are seeking re-election this time around.
"Experience is very, very important in anything," Mr. Chrétien told reporters later. "If you apply for a job, the first question they ask you, 'What about experience?' "
According to the poll, the Liberals have the support of about 40 per cent of the voting population, down four percentage points from the most recent poll. The Canadian Alliance has jumped two points to 28 per cent.
Most dangerous for the Liberals, however, is the fact that Mr. Chrétien's own popularity numbers are dropping. When asked about their opinion of Mr. Chrétien, 38 per cent said it had worsened after the debates, while only 9 per cent said it had gone up. His rating was by far the worst among the five major party leaders. Moreover, only 44 per cent of Canadians think the government deserves to be re-elected, down five points from 10 days ago.
Mr. Chrétien began his effort to salvage the government's majority in the friendly electoral territory of Toronto. He also ventured east and north of the city, where the Alliance is hoping to make gains and end the Liberal majority. To combat them, Mr. Chrétien stayed on a path similar to the one he has trod over the past three weeks, hammering the Alliance on health care and ridiculing its support of using referendums to decide issues like abortion.
Later, Mr. Chrétien said he wasn't unduly concerned about the polls, saying MPs are telling him that the response at the doors has been positive.
Asked whether he was focusing on the team because of his own personal shortcomings, Mr. Chrétien noted that the 1993 election slogan focused on the Liberal team as well. He added that he discussed the Liberal players on the first day of the election campaign and it is inaccurate to suggest that he was somehow de-emphasizing his own role.
"Politics is a team," he said. "I'm the coach, but I was a member of the team of Mr. Trudeau for many years."
Earlier in the day, Mr. Chrétien also met with former hockey great Gordie Howe, inviting inevitable questions about whether he has been in the political game too long. Mr. Howe himself was questioned for staying on too long.
"You saw Gordie, he's still in pretty good shape," Mr. Chrétien said. "He's still quite acceptable to a lot of people in Canada."
With a report from Paul Adams