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Profile : Canada's Defense Minister Storms Top Bastion of Power : Kim Campbell leads in ruling party race. She could become North America's first female national leader.


TORONTO — Just seven years ago, Canadian Defense Minister Kim Campbell was a political neophyte making a suicidal run for her party's leadership in British Columbia. She spent nearly $40,000 for a last-place showing in a field of 12.

"I never thought I could win, but I wanted to show that the party had to reach out to women and young people," a chin-up Campbell explained at the time.

It was a humiliating debut, but today Campbell's "reaching out" tactic may bring her to the verge of ultimate power. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney announced last week that he would step down by mid-June, and polls show Campbell to be the candidate to beat in the race to succeed him as party leader.

If Campbell is indeed chosen the Progressive Conservative Party's leader this summer, and if the Progressive Conservatives go on to victory in national elections in the fall, then the 45-year-old former trial lawyer, teacher and amateur cellist not only will become Canada's 19th prime minister, she will be the first woman to head a national government in North American history.

In a country crying out for fresh faces and new political ideas, Campbell appears to hold much the same appeal that Bill Clinton did in America last year--or better yet, to hold the same appeal of a Bill and a Hillary Rodham Clinton rolled into one.

(The leader of another of Canada's three main political parties, the social-democratic New Democratic Party, is also a woman.)

Not that Campbell's ascendance would necessarily translate into a flowering matriarchy north of the border, however.

"I don't like to get into this thing where if women ruled the world, there would be more truth, beauty and justice," Campbell has said. Though she is a progressive by the standards of her own party, and though her interest in the problems of women is doubted by few, she is, in the end, an ideological conservative--albeit one who resents it that conservatives are so rarely thought of as authentic feminists.

Since her election to Parliament in 1988, Campbell has impressed many in Ottawa who follow politics as aloof and quick-tempered, even abrasive. Despite her current popularity with the voters, she lacks powerful friends and mentors within her own party--a shortcoming that could yet undo her at the leadership convention come June.

Even Campbell's intelligence irks some, coming across as it sometimes does as bookishness, even pedantry.

"She is the only one I have ever heard quote Plato (in Parliament)," said Lynn Hunter, a member of Parliament from Canada's New Democrat Party. "I mean, give me a break." Yet Campbell has also revealed a touchingly human side, admitting that she has suffered "unspeakable loneliness" as a result of her express-elevator rise. Her two marriages both collapsed under the pressures of her busy professional life, and she is childless.

She has also occasionally demonstrated what passes for a sense of humor in a country not know for its jocularity. As a 35-year-old law student, she told a Vancouver newspaper, "What I'd really like to do is make lots and lots of money and just be a writer of comedies and sit at home with a lampshade on my head."

And in 1990, when photographer Barbara Woodley asked Campbell if she could include her in a series of portraits of prominent Canadian women, the two settled on a fanciful pose in which the new justice minister stood for Woodley's camera in a state of seeming undress, holding her court robes on a hanger before her.

Predictably, the portrait made grist for Campbell's critics, who accused her of using her bare-shouldered assets to boost her political career. One even found it in herself to pronounce Campbell the "Madonna of Canadian politics."

Retorted Campbell, "A comparison between Madonna and me is a comparison between a strapless evening gown and a gownless evening strap."

That incident aside, Campbell's tenure as a Cabinet minister has been marked by serious attempts to strike a balance between the right wing of her own party and the comparatively progressive requirements of the Canadian Charter of Rights. Her willingness to look for such compromise, and to entertain competing points of view, does much to explain her good standing among Canadians who would not otherwise think of supporting a conservative.

Though Campbell is Canada's first--and NATO's only--female defense minister, it was as justice minister that she made her place in Canadian politics. (She became defense minister only in January, in an election-year Cabinet shuffle meant to give new life to a tiring government.)

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