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Turner's gaffes are shortening his lead in race to replace Trudeau

John Turner is dropping the ball. The front-runner in the race for the job of Liberal leader is making gaffe after gaffe in his run to succeed Pierre Trudeau as prime minister of Canada.

Mr. Turner's biggest mistakes have come on the sensitive issue of language: the rights of the French-speaking minority in Manitoba and the English-speaking minority in Quebec.

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Mr. Turner has sided with the view that provinces have the right to legislate on language. He said that on the issue of Bill 101, Quebec's language law, he was for it ''in principle,'' adding, ''it's a question of provincial rights.''

Bill 101 makes Quebec a unilingual, French-speaking province. It outlaws English signs. It denies the linguage rights of almost 1 million English-speaking Quebeckers, and the Trudeau government has challenged sections of it successfully in the Supreme Court of Canada.

When discussing the actions of Manitoba's provincial legislature, Turner again said language rights were a provincial issue. Manitoba has denied such rights to French speakers since 1890 although they were guaranteed those rights when they joined the confederation in 1870.

Both Mr. Trudeau and the leader of the Conservative Party, Brian Mulroney, have denounced the stance taken by the opposition in Manitoba in denying rights to the French-speaking minority. In Winnipeg a few weeks ago, Mr. Mulroney had to endure bigoted taunts of ''Go back to frogland'' as he explained his stand on language.

Turner has come out on the opposite side but he has had to try to clarify things. After his remarks about the Quebec language law last week, he said his views had been misrepresented. He said he merely meant that passing the law was within provincial jurisdiction.

Political professionals in Ottawa say Turner has lost his commanding lead in the race for leadership of the Liberals. He is just ahead of his main opponent, Jean Chretien.

''He's out of practice and he stands for a lot of things the Liberal Party doesn't. The party doesn't like him,'' an Ottawa political pro said. Turner left the Cabinet in 1975 to go back to his law practice.

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His test will come later this month when the Liberals hold a series of policy sessions, beginning April 28 in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. John Turner will have to explain his policies to a critical audience of potential delegates to the June convention.

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