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Canada's Chretien took power through grit

SHAWINIGAN, Canada (Reuters) -- Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien won his first election to Parliament in 1963 with a mix of grit, bravado, oft-endearing working-class bluntness and a good measure of negative campaigning.

Nearly four decades later, he is using the same formula to try to win his 12th -- and possibly last -- election to Parliament on Monday and to become the first Canadian leader since World War Two to win three straight parliamentary majorities.

A street scrapper and team captain from his youth, Chretien relishes few things more than a political struggle. In the 2000 campaign he has battled charges of arrogance and patronage and a widespread perception that he has overstayed his time.

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But at the same time the Liberal leader has enjoyed demonizing his main political opponents, the right-wing Canadian Alliance.

"Chretien was not gifted with any undue amount of charisma, but he has the quality from which leadership often takes its cue. He had willpower," biographer Lawrence Martin wrote.

The 18th of 19 children born to a working-class family in the pulp-and-paper Quebec town of Shawinigan, Chretien rose to his present position after overcoming financial and physical obstacles -- including deafness in one ear and a childhood attack of Bell's Palsy that partly paralyzed his face.

His machinist father was a political junkie who was determined that at least one of his sons would enter politics. "It was his sport," Chretien recounted last week.

By the age of 12 or 13 Jean Chretien was setting up chairs and handing out pamphlets at political rallies and by 15 he was debating politics in the pool halls.

"I wanted to be an architect. He said, 'No, Jean, an architect -- you will not get elected. You have to become a lawyer'," Chretien told high school students in Nova Scotia.

Martin said Chretien's father backed him in placing bets totaling C$17,000 ($11,000) in 1963 as part of an elaborate bluff to create the impression that his son would win a seat in Parliament. He did, and never looked back.

He entered Parliament at 29, rough around the edges and hardly able to speak English. But a combination of ambition and harsh attacks on Quebec separatists won him a seat in the cabinet at 33 -- the youngest cabinet member that century.

And after a failed run at the Liberal Party leadership in 1984, he won in 1990 and became prime minister in 1993 -- in some ways by default.

"When I look at myself, I despaired. But when I look at others, I feel pretty good, so I said, why not try?" he said.

In the 1990 leadership race Chretien beat out Paul Martin, whom he would later name as one of Canada's most successful finance ministers but whose ambition to succeed Chretien would dog him during his years in the top job.

Wife put her foot down

Sources close to Chretien put out the story that he considered announcing his departure earlier this year, to allow a leadership race that Martin would have been sure to win. But Chretien's wife, Aline, put her foot down after wrangling in the Martin camp and insisted he run for a third term.

He has cultivated an image as the self-effacing Little Guy from Shawinigan, speaking often of "the rich and the rest of us" despite being a millionaire himself.

But Chretien gradually began to be seen by many as aloof and arrogant, one who delighted in the perks of the job, dished out patronage and ruled his Liberal caucus with an iron fist.

"You become isolated. No doubt about it," he reflected during the campaign. "You don't have a lot of time to go into a beer parlor and have a beer with the boys. This is unfortunately over."

At 66, Chretien has had to brave comparison during the campaign with the fresher face of Alliance leader Stockwell Day, 50. He is still lean and fit but looks, well, a generation older.

Chretien is an unashamed apologist for activist government and delighted in budget surpluses in the past few years that let him trumpet government programs after self-imposed budget cuts.

Charitably viewed, he has a rough-hewn way of speaking. Uncharitably, he mangles both English and French, Canada's two official languages.

But when it comes to his defense of a united Canada, audiences have no doubt as to his passion as he declares proudly: "I am a Quebecer, I am francophone, I am Canadian."

No matter which way the election goes -- the polls point to a Liberal government, although there is a chance of a minority government rather than the majority Chretien craves -- his days as prime minister may be numbered.

Chretien said during the campaign he would consider stepping down after two or three years, and Martin's camp is sure to try to hold him to that.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



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