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Stumping for Canada’s Conservatives : Jean Charest has the formidable task of rebuilding support for his party, which lost all but two parliamentary seats in the last election.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jean Charest might be forgiven if he feels a bit like the man who inherits the family mansion when a favorite aunt dies--and arrives to find the house burned to the ground.

Charest, 35, is the new leader of Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party, and it has fallen to him to rebuild on the wreckage left by his two predecessors, former Prime Ministers Brian Mulroney and Kim Campbell. Charest first sought the party leadership in June, 1993, when Mulroney gave up the post after 10 years. He lost to Campbell, who made history by becoming Canada’s first woman prime minister.

Four months later, Campbell made history again--by leading her party to the worst election defeat ever in Canadian politics. The Liberal Party, led by Jean Chretien, swept to power, and of the 152 Conservatives in Parliament, only Charest and Elsie Wayne of New Brunswick survived. Campbell lost in her own district and was pushed out of the party leadership just before Christmas.

Enter Charest.

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His rise surprised few in Canadian politics. A Quebecker who represents the Eastern Townships region southeast of Montreal, Charest is widely praised as thoughtful, moderate, articulate and ambitious--a bright star in a new generation of Canadian political leaders.

But few envy him his current task. Charest not only must rebuild on a depleted base--current polls show Chretien’s national popularity in the 60% range, with the Conservatives barely registering--but must do so with a huge campaign debt. He also has new competition on the Canadian right in the Western-based Reform Party led by Preston Manning of Alberta.

Charest lacks even a consistent voice in Parliament. With only two members, the Conservatives receive no automatic recognition at “Question Time,” the daily ritual in which the opposition puts the government in the hot seat and wins news media attention.

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So, rather than sit quietly on a parliamentary back bench in Ottawa, Charest has taken to the road, speaking at party fund-raising dinners across the country, bucking up the troops and formulating a comeback strategy.

He plans to popularize the party by giving individual members more power and to intellectually anchor it with a permanent policy branch, a sort of in-house think tank.

The Conservatives still have a nationwide voter base and organization to build on, he said. The Reform Party, in contrast, is just beginning to move out of its Western base and is handicapped by an unimpressive performance in Parliament thus far.

But Charest’s best opportunity may come in his home province, where surveys show he is the most effective spokesman for Canadian unity. If, as many here expect, Quebeckers are presented with a referendum on independence within a year, Charest plans to play a lead role in the campaign against it. Should the referendum be defeated, Charest could emerge as “one of the most popular politicians in Canada,” said Michael Meighen, a former president of the Progressive Conservatives and admitted Charest fan.

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Of course, not everyone foresees such a comeback. Manning, for example, believes Charest badly underestimates the profound repudiation that the last election represented for the Conservatives.

The precipitous fall of the Conservatives has a certain comic effect as well. A weekly program of political satire on CBC radio recently featured a sketch depicting Charest as addressing a dinner gathering of the party faithful at a McDonald’s--and repeatedly interrupting his speech to take hamburger orders.

How Far It Fell

Results of Canada’s last three national elections show the fall of the Progressive Conservative Party, compared with the country’s other major parties.

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Breakdown of election results by political party: October, 1993

Liberals: 177 seats

Progressive Conservatives: 2

New Democratic Party: 9

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Bloc Quebecois: 54

Reform Party: 52

Total: 295 seats* November, 1988

Liberals: 83 seats

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Progressive Conservatives: 169

New Democratic Party: 43

Total: 295 seats September, 1984

Liberals: 40 seats

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Progressive Conservatives: 211

New Democratic Party: 30

Totals: 282 seats*

*Includes one seat held by another party Source: Elections Canada

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