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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

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Toronto Liberal MP John McKay acknowledges that Mr. Martin's decision to call the Gomery inquiry could cost him the prime ministership.

"Let's face it, the Prime Minister took a very principled decision when he first became Prime Minister and that has become a costly decision.

"Ultimately I find it quite distressing in terms of maturity of political dialogue in this country. This government has done some pretty important things, and I'm quite distressed that it may not actually get an opportunity to see those things come to fruition."

For Reg Alcock, the fallout from the Gomery inquiry represents a painful irony: "He defined an incredibly aggressive agenda to reconstruct politics," Mr. Alcock says. Instead "his whole time has been spent reacting to the actions of others."

Whatever will become of Paul Martin?

The Liberals believe they have a shot at winning a June election. Polls are volatile, and voters may punish Conservative Leader Stephen Harper for forcing a premature vote. Besides, they argue, public opinion is being shaped by the opinions of political and media elites. But once an election campaign is under way, voters will start to think for themselves.

The Martinites will tell you that they are governing "on the numbers." Liberal strategist John Duffy explains it this way: The public-policy establishment promotes a mostly conservative agenda emphasizing a larger role for the private sector in health care, deeper North American integration, and an emphasis on postsecondary education.

But Mr. Martin chose instead to implement what polls ("the numbers") say are the priorities of the general public: fixing the public health-care system, concentrating on education in the early years (hence, the child-care program) and reversing the decline of the urban environment.

"Right-of-centre elites think we're wrong, wrong, wrong," Mr. Duffy contends, "because we are on the public's agenda, not the elites' agenda. But the public likes this stuff."

The Liberal strategy is to neutralize the Gomery effect by demonstrating contrition and a determination to get to the bottom of the affair. Thursday night's television address, and this weekend's media blitz by the Prime Minister -- The Sorry as Hell Tour, a sequel to last year's Mad as Hell Tour -- are the first steps. Then the Liberals will try to shift the emphasis, focusing on their social agenda and contrasting it with the Conservative plan for tax cuts and closer co-operation with the United States.

It just might work. Except, as some of them quietly admit, the Liberals have a major handicap: They are the only party that doesn't want an election. The Bloc Québécois and the NDP hope to make significant gains, while the Conservatives hope to form a government.

Given the Liberals' internal divisions and uncertain track record, the question will be whether the party and the Prime Minister can summon the psychic energy needed to sustain a six-week election campaign that delivers, at the least, a Liberal minority.

To deprive Paul Martin of the chance to complete the agenda he set himself and the country, his supporters believe, would be a terrible loss for Canada.

"I wish people could see through the doors of cabinet and how committed he is to an agenda. He has an agenda of care and he is almost immune to political consideration," said Veterans Affairs Minister Albina Guarnieri.

"When you raise political considerations with him, he brushes you aside and he demands to know the right thing to do from a good policy perspective."

Mr. Alcock describes a leader who will "chase you around the table 50 times" making up his mind, but who is "serene" once that decision is made. The Prime Minister has laid out his proposal to delay an election until February, after Judge Gomery issues his report. But if the opposition is determined to fight it now, Mr. Alcock is certain Mr. Martin is ready.

"I don't know where he gets the energy. I know he gets it."

But the odds are formidable. And it's not just the Gomery inquiry and the debatable legacy.

"There is, in the mind of the people, a degree of fatigue with any government," Mr. Alcock observes.

After all, "the last election was the fourth time in a row, without interruption, in which we asked for a mandate. The next time will be the fifth."

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