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Frazzled in the forum: A besieged PM hangs on As he takes flak from Gomery and mounting criticism that his government is adrift, Martin may soon have to find the strength to fight another election

As he takes flak from Gomery and mounting criticism that his government is adrift, Martin may soon have to find the strength to fight another election

With a report from Jane Taber

Some say he is not sleeping well. Others report the temper tantrums are getting worse. He drinks massive quantities of coffee. Some of the people around him are beginning to worry about his health.

But you'd be crazy to count him out.

Paul Martin's senior advisers, angry at having lost control of the political agenda, are determined to get it back. They didn't ask for the election that is being thrust upon them, but they are confident that they can win it.

Maybe they will. But the fact remains that the Liberals are struggling with more than the ever-spreading fallout from the sponsorship scandal. They must also fight a growing impression that the government is adrift, its agenda frustrated by a minority Parliament and by a Prime Minister who wanted to take on everything and ended up achieving very little.

Mr. Martin's supporters maintain that the impression is deeply unfair, that the Liberal track record is impressive, given the circumstances, and that the government's agenda remains focused and on track.

They say it is the media, and not the public, who are asking the question: So whatever happened to Paul Martin?

After all, he was heir apparent for so long. A brilliant policy wonk with a human touch. A new-age Liberal with old-Liberal credentials. An Anglo from Montreal sired by a Francophone from Ontario. And perhaps the most successful finance minister in Canadian history.

Today, he is viewed by many as indecisive, meddling, undisciplined. The Economist's appellation of "Mr. Dithers" was the unkindest cut, but it only entrenched a widespread impression.

"My view is that you [the media] misjudged Martin," says a long-time supporter of Jean Chrétien, former prime minister and present political adversary. "All the things you thought were great, the brainstorming . . . it was because he couldn't make a decision."

But that may be simplistic. The government's defenders can point to a raft of decisions -- in health care, foreign policy, defence, cities, child care.

Treasury Board President Reg Alcock believes Mr. Martin "has probably driven, or started, more change than any prime minister in the same period of time."

So why is this government not seen as an agent of, as Mr. Martin loves to put it, transformative change?

His response is surprisingly candid. "I think we managed expectations badly."

Mr. Alcock remembers Mr. Martin's visionary "politics of achievement" speech when he won the Liberal leadership back in November, 2003. That speech, he thinks, was typical of Mr. Martin's unfettered enthusiasm for imagining the future and then changing the present to prepare for it.

"He gets genuinely excited by this stuff," Mr. Alcock says. "He loves nothing better than to talk about it. So you get this 'the world can be different,' and then you are faced with reality."

Is that what happened to Paul Martin: creating unreasonable expectations and then failing to meet them?

Or was the problem with what is known as the Board?

In the Prime Minister's Office, according to one theory, there are football players and members of the chess club. Actually, it's more subtle than that. The same people -- Chief of Staff Tim Murphy, Communications Director Scott Reid, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Littler, Foreign Policy Adviser Jonathan Fried, collectively known as the Board -- sometimes act like they belong to a chess club, concerned with policy and the philosophy of government, and sometimes like football players, ready to tackle anyone who crosses them, whether it's an opposition critic or a wayward cabinet minister.

The most oft-reported criticism of the Centre is that its members are control freaks devoted to a horizontal power structure. That is, the Prime Minister's Office insists on managing every file, every controversy, every announcement. But its tight-knit members, many of whom have been with Mr. Martin since his days as an MP in the late 1980s, don't distinguish among themselves who is responsible for what. The result, say critics, is a PMO that leaps into everything and accomplishes little.

"Flat management doesn't work," says one Liberal strategist. There are too many deputy chiefs of staff, too many opinions floating around, and a Prime Minister who tends to change his position depending on who he talked to last.

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