Popular Martin set for power, poll says
Les Whittington
MOST POPULAR: A new EKOS poll says Paul Martin, seen at Glen Abbey Golf Club earlier this month with supporters at a fundraiser, enjoys enormous popularity across the country, including 64 per cent in Ontario who said they'd vote for him in an election.
OTTAWA — Canadians support Jean Chrétien's decision to step down in 2004 and are ready to vault the Liberals back into power under the hugely popular Paul Martin, a new national poll says.

The survey, conducted by EKOS Research Associates Inc. for The Toronto Star and CBC, found 67 per cent support Chrétien's retirement plans, with a majority of Canadians predicting Martin will become the next Liberal leader and prime minister.

Martin's hold on the public is so powerful that his main risk is overinflated expectations, said EKOS president Frank Graves.

"You would probably have to go back to Moses to find another leader who has been freighted with as much expectations from his people as Mr. Martin is today," he said.

Chrétien's decision to open the way for Martin has been a shot in the arm for the Liberals, who would garner the support of 53.1 per cent of decided voters if an election were held now — enough for an overwhelming majority victory, said Graves.

The Liberals' rise in the polls "is just sort of a big sigh of relief on the part of the public, and particularly Liberal voters, that, okay, this thing has been solved," Graves explained.

Martin is riding the strongest wave of popularity in recent political history, he said. The poll found 63 per cent of respondents believe the former finance minister would make a good prime minister, a rating that left other Liberal leadership hopefuls far behind.

The Liberals are now ahead in every region of the country. In Ontario, they enjoy 64 per cent popularity among decided voters, with the Tories second at 17 per cent, followed by the NDP with 9 per cent and the Alliance at 8 per cent.

The survey of 1,210 adults was conducted Aug. 22-25, shortly after Chrétien announced his retirement plans Wednesday. The poll is considered accurate within plus-or-minus 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

While 67 per cent approved of the Prime Minister' decision to leave politics, 25 per cent opposed the move (9 per cent had no opinion). Of those who opposed it, the vast majority said Chrétien should leave sooner. Voters who back the opposition parties were more likely than Liberal supporters to express that view that 18 months was too long to wait.

Graves said many Canadians would ideally like to see Chrétien leave sooner. But there is a widespread conviction that forcing an earlier leadership convention would not be worth the political damage that might ensue by forcing the timing issue, he said.

Graves also said the pollsters found little support among Liberals for holding the national convention scheduled for February now that Chrétien has announced plans to step down.

The main event at the convention would have been a vote of confidence in Chrétien's leadership, but that showdown is unlikely to take place now. The Liberal executive committee will probably postpone the convention.

Martin, who left cabinet June 2 in a dispute with Chrétien, enjoys "sky-high" expectations from Canadians, EKOS found.

More than half of respondents said Martin will be the next leader when the Liberals chose a new standard-bearer. Deputy Prime Minister John Manley placed a distant second, with 5 per cent predicting he would replace Chrétien.

"This is not a contest, it's a coronation," Graves said.

EKOS also found that Canadians believe the policies of a Martin-led government would be roughly the same as seen under Chrétien.

But 83 per cent expect the economy would be better managed under Martin. And, in an apparent contradiction, the public also said a Martin government would invest more money in social programs like health care and education while at the same time lowering taxes.

A majority also said there would be more private health care under a Martin-led government.

With the prospect of Martin becoming leader, the Liberals now stand at 53.1 per cent of decided voter support across the country. In the 2000 federal election, Chrétien needed only 40.9 per cent support to win a third consecutive majority.

The Progressive Conservatives, with 14.7 per cent support, have moved into second place in decided voter popularity.

The Canadian Alliance under new leader Stephen Harper has slipped to 10.5 per cent, putting it just behind the New Democrats, with 10.6 per cent. The Bloc Québécois has 8 per cent.

Undecided voters totalled 24.8 per cent.

"The Liberals seem to have rebounded extremely well from all of the turmoil and difficulties that were really hurting it," said Graves. He was referring to the deepening clash between Chrétien loyalists and supporters of Martin's leadership aspirations. The resulting disarray in the Liberal government has caused a steady decline in Liberal popularity in the first half of this year.

Graves said that Chrétien is leaving "in relatively good standing with the public," especially compared to former prime minister Brian Mulroney, who left with his party at 16 per cent in the polls.

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