In the volatile world of Canadian politics, the diplomatic thriller of the past week known here as "The Great Escape" eventually may save more than the six Americans smuggled out of Iran.
Within hours after the Canadian-arranged getaway became the toast of world affairs, analysts began to revive the political corpse of Prime Minister Joe Clark, who had been all but written off in the coming federal election.
The Clark government's handling of the delicate diplomatic mission has led political pundits here to reevaluate the prime minister's formerly accepted image as an inexperienced bungler in foreign policy affairs.
Even his harshest critics have begun making comparisons with President Carter's remarkable political comeback after the Islamic militants took American hostages in he U.S. Embassy in Tehran 12 weeks ago.
"Can the 'Canadian Caper' do for Joe what the ayatollah [Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] did for Jimmy?" asked one Ottawa political commentater, who a few days earlier had branded Clark a sure loser.
The definitive answer will come in the Feb. 18 election. But a Gallup Poll published in today's edition of The Toronto Star indicates that the race is far from over for Clark, 40, whose government unexpectedly fell Dec. 13, just 6 1/2 months after it was formed.
The poll -- compiled after the news of Monday's dazzling escape and disclosure that the Canadian embassy in Tehran had sheltered the Americans for three months -- showed that Clark's Progressive Conservative Party had made significant gains among the electorate in the vital Toronto area, cutting the Liberal Party lead by half.
Clark received an extra boost when it was revealed that his chief campaign rival -- former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who heads the Liberal opposition -- had been kept informed of the Canadian operation at the same time that he was attacking Clark's government for being too weak in support of the U.S. position.
Trudeau, 60, explained this week that he merely was trying to coax the Conservative government into an even stronger role, but his justification did little to counter hard-hitting newspaper editorials accusing him of duplicity and irresponsibility that could have imperiled the sensitive mission.
Although Trudeau continues to hold a sizable lead in Toronto and is expected easily to win his populous home province of Quebec, his advisers admittedly were uneasy over the surprising impact of last week's diplomatic coup by the Clark government.
"Sure, it'll help him [Clark], but the question is whether it will be a three-week deviation or a four-day wonder," remarked Gordon Ashworth, the Liberal's executive campaign director. "He's trying to hit the home-run ball with it and be like Jimmy Carter. But I don't think he's got enough time to erase his past sins."
While Clark's strategists were elated over their candidate's popular revival, they claim the "Canadian Caper" merely intensified a growing shift by the voters in favor of the prime minister since he began concentrating on foreign policy issues two weeks ago.
In the cold war rhetoric of the 1950's, Clark now strongly denounces the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, calls for increased defense spending and criticizes Trudeau for past neglect of Canada's role in NATO.
For a long-time advocate of detente such as Trudeau, Clark's hard-line stance smacks of "commie-bashing." But Trudeau has adjusted his positions, reversing himself last week to give qualified support for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics unless Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan by Feb. 20 -- a position taken by Clark a week earlier.
"Clark isn't saying anything he hasn't said before," said campaign spokesman Tim Ralphe. "The climate has just changed. For the first time since the 50's, people are talking about a world war."
The stunning role reversal of the past week -- with the sometimes hapless Clark looking like a statesman and the normally smooth Trudeau seen as a clumsy opportunist -- defied the conventional wisdom even among the politically fickle Canadian electorate.
Since his upset victory last May forced Trudeau out of office for the first time in 11 years, Clark has stumbled from one embarrassing crisis to another, inspiring "Joe Clark" jokes and a new political measure known as "the wimp factor" to describe what critics say are his awkward mannerisms and policies.
In many ways, the current election is the tale of two embassies.Long before the Canadian venture in Iran resurrected Clark last week, he got into trouble by pledging to move Canada's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, where Israelis say all diplomatic missions belong because of their historic claim that the holy city is their true capital.
The promise was made during last spring's campaign and repeated at Clark's first press conference as prime minister, only to be shelved several months later when Arab nations threatened to cut off Canadian contracts.
The Jerusalem embassy gaffe dominated the early phase of the contest, with Trudeau charging that it illustrated Clark's practice of "making foreign policy on the back of an envelope ." In a televised advertisement paid for by Trudeau, a large hand sweeps across an Israeli map moving a replica of the Canadian embassy back and forth.
Trudeau seeks to project the image of a mature, competent policymaker -- a role he now cultivates by reading speeches from behind a lecturn instead of his customary "gunslinger" pose of leaning back, thumbs in his trouser waistband, speaking extemporaneously.
His sudden popularity is something of a political miracle itself. Swept out of office last spring by a strong anti-Trudeau tide, he was considered washed up just a few months ago and even announced his resignation as Liberal leader in November.
With the party in need of a candidate, however, Trudeau agreed to postpone his retirement and became an early favorite in the race against Clark and Ed Broadbent, the candidate of the left-of-center New Democratic Party.