Though federal elections are at least two years away in Canada, the outcome could hinge, to a large degree, on what transpires at a convention ending here Sunday of the opposition Liberal Party.

For the Liberals to find themselves in opposition is, in itself, akin to a novelty in Canadian political history. The Liberals are a party accustomed to exercising power, while the Progressive Conservatives provide the occasional alternative, which rarely lasts long because of their uncanny ability to shoot themselves in the foot.But since September of 1984, the Tories have been calling the tune in Ottawa, the federal capital, after a landslide victory: 211 seats in the House of Commons, compared to a mere 40 for the Liberals and 30 for the socialist New Democratic Party.

With opinion polls showing, however, a sharp decline of public support for the Tories, the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appears vulnerable and Liberals are looking for ways of guaranteeing a return to power.

The dilemma for the 3,000 or so delegates at the convention is whether or not to continue backing a leader who is clearly less popular than his party.

John Turner, who was coaxed into leaving a lucrative law practice in Toronto to return to politics (he was in cabinet during the Trudeau Era) in 1984 has worked tirelessly to rebuild the Liberal Party at the grass roots.

But instead of viewing Mr. Turner as a leader who has steered his party

from devastation to a consistent advance in the polls, most Canadians see question marks.

There is a yawning gap between how the average Canadian perceives Mr. Turner and how the new generation Liberals respond to him.

The latter feel loyal towards Mr. Turner for having weeded out much of the old establishment and for having restored democracy within the party.

The man the street, on the other hand, remains unimpressed by Mr. Turner's performance on television and by the evolution of the Liberal Party on the policy front. There has also been confusion on such key issues as a proposed free trade agreement with the United States, reflecting divisions within the party.

The populist figure that Mr. Turner narrowly defeated in 1984, Jean Chretien, would be twice as popular as the head of the party and the Liberal lead over the Tories would be roughly doubled, a recent poll suggested.

The latest Gallup polls shows that 39 percent of decided voters support the Liberals, 31 percent back the Tories and 29 percent percent support the New Democratic Party.

Never has support for the left-wing NDP run so high in Canada. Much of this swing is attributed to disenchantment with Mr. Turner's leadership from wavering Liberal voters.

Prior to the start of the convention, the forces in favor of a leadership review seemed to be largely outnumbered by those wanting Mr. Turner to remain at the helm.

But the party has been shaken at its foundations by a tough message recently circulated among its members by Marc Lalonde, a former finance minister.

According to Mr. Lalonde, a political party exists to exercise power and under Mr. Turner the next election will once again relegate the Liberals to the opposition benches. He goes further, asserting that the future of the Liberal Party is in serious question.

Mr. Lalonde's ruthless assault may have only strengthened the resolve of the pro-Turner camp.

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