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This time, it's the Tories who are standing alongside the 'star candidates'

'Tis the season of opportunity . . . and opportunism.

No one needs another poll to know which party is expected to win the (almost certainly) coming election -- just the list of "star candidates."

The election no one else wants is likely still a month away from being forced, but already the Loyal Opposition is trotting out the "names" and letting slip the rumours.

A beaming Stephen Harper, supposedly prime-minister-in-waiting, is delighted to stand with Lawrence Cannon, a onetime communications minister in the provincial cabinet of Robert Bourassa, who has shaken free of his Liberal skin and hopes to lead a Conservative breakthrough in Quebec.

Cannon is but the first. There is also Pauline Browse, briefly minister of Indian Affairs under briefly prime minister Kim Campbell. There is Blair Lancaster, a former Miss Canada who runs a spa and modelling agency in Ontario's Golden Horseshoe. There is even Wayne Gretzky's Uncle Albert, ready to run in London.

But the real star is a television heavy, Peter Kent, who once fronted The National and is being "talked to" about running in a Toronto riding.

The Liberals, who a year ago seemed to be trotting out a new star candidate a week, have made no such announcements, and, so far as we have been able to pick up, have dropped no hints.

More likely, the Liberals are working on making sure last year's star candidates -- at least those who got elected -- stay on at a time when the polls indicate opposition is a most distinct possibility.

It is a tough sell: stick around, and see your salary slashed, your driver taken away, your personal staff gutted and your calling reduced to shouting out questions that never get answered.

Star candidates, for obvious reasons, come around only when it's a safe bet that you can keep on being a star.

The rules of star candidacy, whether you're speaking of a Peter Kent in federal politics or a Carole Taylor in the British Columbia provincial election, are not written down but are known, by heart, by every political leader.

Rule No. 1: They don't run unless they're certain of winning -- although this can sometimes backfire, as Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray and Sherbrooke University rector Bruno-Marie Béchard discovered last year with Paul Martin and the stumbling Liberals.

Rule No. 2: They don't run unless they are guaranteed a cabinet post. There is, of course, no requirement for this arrangement to be recorded anywhere, for the true paper trail of Canadian politics has always been the wink and the nudge.

Rule No. 3: The one who steps aside gets rewarded -- again with no real paper involved. The current example for this is Art Eggleton, who was himself once a star candidate (former mayor of Toronto) and who last year stepped aside in the riding of York Centre for hockey legend Ken Dryden. He is now Senator Eggleton.

It is a given that most of the "names" that Stephen Harper will mention in the coming weeks already see themselves wielding significant power by the end of June. It is an equal given that last year's "names" -- David Emerson (Minister of Industry), Ujjal Dosanjh (Health), Jean Lapierre (Transport) and Dryden (Social Development) -- will be having hot and cold flashes, anxiety attacks and second thoughts about wise choices and unfinished business, at the same time as they pitch in, no matter whether the reason be loyalty, conviction or simply no other choice.

None of them, Murray and Béchard included, could possibly have seen last June 28 coming, let alone the current state. When they agreed to run, Martin was heading for a massive majority, only to squeak in with a minority he may not even hold for a year.

The Liberals, as the natural ruling party of Canada, have always led the nation in star candidates. Since no stars are bigger in this country than hockey stars, at least until this year, Dryden was hardly the first to run for the Liberals. Lionel (Big Train) Conacher ran and won, as did Hugh Plaxton, Bucko McDonald, Howie Meeker and Red Kelly.

None, curiously, found the House of Commons a satisfying life -- perhaps because the political game lacks a buzzer.

The Tories did have luck with skater Otto Jelinek, who went on to serve in Brian Mulroney's cabinet, and they thought about recruiting Bobby Orr to run in the Parry Sound area, but backed off when the sitting member, who was then well into his 70s, said Orr would want to keep his head up if he planned to go into the corner with Stan Darling.

But the Tories did get former mayors (Toronto's David Crombie, Saint John's Elsie Wayne) and corporate heavies like Michael Wilson to run, and all won.

They may win again, should Kent and some of the other high-profile names being whispered about decide to give it a go.

As for the Liberals this time out, Paul Martin is likely to find his calls passed over to voice mail.

rmacgregor@globeandmail.ca

Friday, April 22, 2005

CORRECTION

A finger tangle while listing star candidates in yesterday's column placed hockey's Howie Meeker on the wrong wing. He won Waterloo South for the Conservative Party in 1951 but did not run again the next election.

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