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Should Harper make way for MacKay?

The other day a journalist told a Liberal cabinet member he was preparing a column saying Stephen Harper should step down as Conservative leader and make way for a guy with some spark, Peter MacKay.

"No. Oh God no. Please don't do that," pleaded the minister. "Wait until after the election."

Peter MacKay has his own set of weaknesses. But he's got three assets that Mr. Harper lacks and that make Liberals sweat. He's a moderate, he's from the east and he has personality, likeability.

The eternally lucky Grits need not be overly concerned, however. Though Mr. MacKay's decision to stay in Ottawa keeps alive the hope of a quick leadership change, the chances are remote.

Stephen Harper is now typecast, fairly or not, as the grim reaper of Canadian politics. But there is not enough will among the party's rank and file to drive him out. The party doesn't need that kind of bloodbath. The only hope for a change would be if the leader, for the good of the team, voluntarily resigned and called a leadership convention for January.

There would be a nice bit of symmetry in such a gesture. Mr. MacKay resigned as captain of the Progressive Conservatives two years ago, effectively clearing the way for Mr. Harper to head up a merged conservative unit.

Today, however, Stephen Harper is in a damn-the-torpedoes frame of mind. He and his cabal are bitter at the media criticism of him. "Still spewing your venom," his charming director of communications hissed at a lowly scribe this week. The leader himself has been avoiding the press. He figures no media is better than the media he has been getting, which might be true.

Peter MacKay, on the other hand, has been all smiles and tan and vigour. Full of kiss and vinegar. Well before this week, he had made up his mind about not going to Nova Scotia. "Not interested," he said between whacks at a golf ball. But, as any smart politician would do, he dragged out the drama perfectly over the last week, letting himself be wooed from both sides.

He had been embarrassed, humiliated, in May when his girlfriend crossed the Commons floor, thereby saving the Liberals from defeat on a no-confidence motion. But he is now, quite remarkably, positioned as the heir apparent.

He has bounced back from the Orchard affair (when he broke an apparent promise to David Orchard not to merge the PCs with Mr. Harper's Alliance). He has the resilience of a rugby player, which he once was.

Ms. Stronach's defection didn't strip away his affection. He was recently asked if he was getting over it. "Do you ever get over something like that?" he responded. In the Commons this week, as he battered away at the Grits, Belinda could be seen shooting the occasional admiring glance in his direction.

He is one of the most charismatic figures in the Green Chamber and, in this game, winning is so much about charm: Think of the Clinton, Reagan, George W. Bush, and Trudeau electoral successes, or that of the early Mulroney. Then think of Preston Manning, Robert Stanfield, Al Gore, John Kerry, Stephen Harper -- gifted, strong policy men but all graduates of dud school. Intellect can gain you important yards in politics. Personality gets you across the goal line.

Today's Conservative Leader should realize this by now. To his credit, he tried an image remake this summer, but was foiled, like Mr. Stanfield fumbling the football, by a guy with a camera -- the geek shot of him in Calgary stampede gear. Mr. Harper hasn't gone into freefall. The Grits are still within range. But given the pall of inertia that cloaks him, he must rely on repeated failures of the governing party -- another series of scandal shocks -- to make up ground.

Mr. MacKay's limitations are many. At 40, he is too young and too inexperienced in federal politics. Beyond the justice portfolio, he is thin on policy. The Orchard affair still rankles. His brief stint as Conservative Leader failed to give the party a lift. There is also a record -- Kim Campbell and John Turner being examples -- which demonstrates that to change leaders right before an election doesn't necessarily work. These reservations aside, however, Peter MacKay is still clearly, as Liberals themselves attest, the Conservatives' best hope against Paul Martin.

Stephen Harper might do well to think about this, and recall the time the Nova Scotian cleared the decks for him.

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