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Canadians eye US election like wary riders on a tandem bike

The Monitor has invited foreign correspondents in the United States to describe, in a series of occasional articles, how they cover the presidential election. This reporter is from Canada. The 25 million members of a special-interest group have a big stake - but no vote - in the United States election. They are Canadians.

As the biggest - yet invisible - trading partner of the US, Canada treks along the American campaign trail with a high degree of self-interest in the results this November. Habitually ambivalent about a life lived in lock step with their richer, more powerful neighbor, Canadians nevertheless know that prosperity and recession blow northward as briskly as acid rain from Ohio and Pennsylvania.

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Since the majority of Canadians live only a few hours' drive from the 4,000-mile border, they soak up US election-year rituals through the osmosis of television with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation.

Their curiosity is aroused because the US election process is both familiar and foreign.

Skeptical by nature, Canadians lack their neighbors' appetite for prolonged, expensive political road shows. In Canada, a 60-day election campaign, without the year-long preamble of American primaries and caucuses, is more than enough for Canadian voters, who do not share the American thirst for political heroes.

Canadians spent less on their 1984 national election than the $22 million price tag for one US Senate seat in California two years later.

And yet, in a country so chauvinistic about its democratic values, American politicians spend vast amounts of time and money wooing voters to surprisingly little effect.

In the 1984 presidential election, 53 percent of those registered turned out, compared with 75 percent of all Canadian voters who went to the polling booth that year in a country where registration is mandatory. To an outsider, the unsettling thought is that so few Americans determine the economic fate of their fellow North Americans.

Even if US voters are turned off, Canadians have little choice but to tune in to the American political scene. Like the rider on a tandem bicycle, Canada is pedaling along with the US - even if the American cyclist rarely notices. Whether they like it or not, and often they do not, Canadians feel all the bumps when the American rider hits a rock in the road. As the US presidential race unfolds, Canadians watch with some anxiety, uncertain about just where the US is headed.

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From a northern perspective, Canada will judge the expected fall showdown between Republican George Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis on how well they answer, in the affirmative, these three questions:

Will the US get its economic house in order and regain its former preeminence?

Will the impending Canada-US free trade agreement lead to better bilateral relations?

Will the next president, at long last, sign an acid rain accord with Canada?

Like many American voters, Canadians regard the race this fall as a choice between continuity and change, after eight years of Ronald Reagan's ``feel good'' economics.

Economic thunderclouds

Though the US economy keeps chugging along in the longest peacetime recovery in more that 40 years, the next president will ignore at his peril - and that of others - the warning shots from last October's stock market crash. Payment on the twin bills of high US budget and trade deficits, for example, are already overdue. But neither Mr. Bush, the world's most famous funeral-goer, nor Mr. Dukakis, author of the self-proclaimed ``Massachusetts miracle,'' offer much insight into how they will pay the bills.

Just as Americans show signs of uneasiness about the decline of US economic power and prestige, Canadians worry, too, for their own reasons. The short, sharp cries of economic nationalism heard in the presidential campaign this spring sparked Canadian fears that the US will turn inward and protectionist. Neither the vice-president nor the Massachusetts governor shows much sign of going that route, but if the US trade deficit remains intractably high, the next president will be under more domestic pressure to get tough on foreigners.

Lowering trade barriers

That is where the free-trade question, so politically charged in Canada, comes into play. Assuming that the legislatures in both countries ratify the bilateral trade accord later this year, Canada will be swept ever closer into the American orbit.

For Americans, the risks and rewards of lifting tariff and other trade restrictions with Canada over a 10-year period beginning Jan. 1, 1989, have barely registered, least of all as a campaign issue this fall. In Canada, where voters may go to the polls in a free-trade election this autumn, the debate is an all-consuming passion.

The Mulroney government has staked its political life on good relations with the Reagan administration, arguing that a formal trade agreement will force the US to pay more attention to its biggest market.

For Canadians, there is little obvious difference between Mr. Bush and Mr. Dukakis, since they both endorse the trade deal and, as energy-poor New Englanders, know the importance of power exports from Canada. But judging from the last four years, when Mr. Mulroney practiced ``pals'' diplomacy with Mr. Reagan, there are real limits to the politics of friendship alone. The US president still plays hardball when his domestic interests are at stake.

Acid rain

As with free trade, the acid-rain question looms large for Canadians, if not for American voters this year. After years of Reagan administration foot-dragging on Canada's demand for an acid-rain accord, Dukakis looks like a promising alternative to Bush. As governor of a New England state suffering the environmental damage of acid rain, Mr. Dukakis undoubtedly will be more sympathetic than Mr. Reagan, who first blamed ``killer trees'' for the problem. But the next president's willingness to sign an acid-rain treaty with Canada still rests on the US's finding its own solution to the regionally-divisive air-pollution problem.

When the US presidential campaign shifts into high gear this fall, one group of spectators will be rooting from the northern bleachers. Though they may be disappointed, Canadians hope the two would-be presidents will debate each other on the environment, trade, and the future of the American economy - issues in which Canada has a vested interest. With luck, whoever wins in November will understand that the US shares a border with a country other than Mexico.

Jennifer Lewington is a correspondent for the (Toronto) Globe and Mail.

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