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Candidates Take a Decidedly Canadian Approach to Election

In a largely issue-free campaign, the focus is on personal matters--from questions about the premier's navel to quirky photo ops.


NEW YORK — So, compared with ours, Canada's upcoming federal election may not be a cliffhanger. Prime Minister Jean Chretien timed the vote to virtually assure himself a third term.

But the Canadian campaign is mercifully shorter--and even wackier, with Chretien's rivals in the Nov. 27 election ranging from a wetsuit-wearing right-wing evangelist to the blissed-out leader of the Marijuana Party. And, given the slow pace of the vote count in Florida, our neighbors to the north may even know their election results before we hear ours.

Canada's prime minister can call an election any time during his or her term, which can stretch five years. Liberal Party leader Chretien called it last month to check the rising popularity of rivals both inside and outside his party and to ride a wave of nostalgia after the death in September of former party leader Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Even if the Liberals do not win a majority of seats in Parliament, it's expected that Chretien will be able to form a government with support from outside his party.

Unlike U.S. elections, the Canadian campaign will last only 36 days. The five major parties have to grab voters' attention while they can.

But the parties have few issues to focus on: When Chretien announced the elections, he disarmed the opposition with a $13.7-billion infusion into the ailing health care system and pledges of massive tax cuts.

That means campaign questions on key concerns such as health care tend toward the personal--whether Progressive Conservative candidate Joe Clark dodged the national system to have a hernia operation in a private hospital, for example--not to mention toward outright navel-gazing.

Is the prime minister's bellybutton an innie or an outie? We don't have to wonder anymore. (Chretien's an innie.) Evangelist Stockwell Day, whose newly formed Canadian Alliance party is running second in the polls, refused to be buttonholed about that issue on the ground that it might alienate either the innie or the outie vote. Said Clark: "Ever since I got it pierced, it's hard to tell."

But even in a largely issue-free election, Canadians pride themselves on not being like Americans. Clark criticized Day for running an "American-style, photo opportunity campaign" after the Canadian Alliance candidate launched his race on a self-propelled water ski, wearing a wetsuit and wraparound sunglasses. The stunt prompted a Web site satire called "Daywatch," at Based on the American television program "Baywatch," it shows how lifeguard Day "saves the rich and lets the rest sink or swim."

The other candidates' approach to the photo op is more, um, Canadian. Clark plastered billboards with his bespectacled, double-chinned portrait captioned, "Not just another pretty face." Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc Quebecois, which advocates the separation of Quebec from Canada, is still trying to live down photos from the 1997 campaign when he posed wearing a plastic hairnet in a cheese factory.

Alexa McDonough, the leftist New Democratic Party candidate, is playing it straight. As the leader of the party long seen as the conscience of Canada, she brooks no wetsuits, no hairnets, no questions about her bellybutton. She leaves it to other party members to pursue the naked truth: A New Democratic candidate for Parliament from Vancouver, 60-year-old Lorrie Williams, posed for a charity calendar seated in a red convertible--wearing only her sunglasses.

And don't forget the Marijuana Party, a one-issue group that seems to be firing up voters with its crop of 73 candidates for Parliament. Even Day seems to have co-opted the party's issue, arguing in his policy papers that there should be a vote on marijuana use--a sort of reefer referendum.

The Natural Law Party of Canada promises to solve the world's problems with transcendental meditation led by flying yogis. Even the Communist Party of Canada is becoming au courant. Its old slogan was "Make the Rich Pay." Now it's: "Empower Canadians."

And then there's the Rest of Canada Party. It's still looking for candidates.

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