Paul Martin worked 10 years to become Canada's prime minister, assembling a formidable political war machine to achieve his goal. He finally succeeded in December after pushing out longtime prime minister Jean Chretien as leader of the governing Liberal Party.
But the Liberals were soon implicated in a corruption scandal, and Martin's standing in polls began to drop. He appeared determined to follow through on calling a new election, but his advisers recommended that he wait, reasoning that he could call it at any time in the nearly 18 months remaining in the five-year term. He waited, but the polls continued to fall.
Advisers urged him to wait longer, but he went against their recommendations and declared an election for June 28, betting that his personal popularity would be enough to win a fourth consecutive term for his party.
That bet may prove to be a disastrous mistake.
Polls show Martin's party almost tied with a newly united Conservative Party, threatening the Liberals' 11 years of government control.
"The thing is, he has spent years waiting to become prime minister and has been run by a bunch of lobbyists," said Allan Fotheringham, a veteran journalist and commentator. "They spent so much time plotting to stab Chretien in the back, they forgot to figure out what they would do when they got power. It has been a disastrous campaign for him."
How, Liberal strategists ask, did things go so bad, so fast for Martin?
With the economy in good shape -- both interest rates and unemployment are low -- conditions would seem to be ideal for the ruling party. But the financial scandal, combined with the strong opposition, has transformed the campaign. Many Canadians voters say they are angry and want a change.
"It was a march of folly for the Liberals to call an election," said Nelson Wiseman, a political scientist at the University of Toronto. "The Liberals had two full years left in their term."
In February, Canada's auditor general released a report on alleged corruption in a government sponsorship program, and the Liberals have been on the defensive ever since. The auditor general claimed in her report that as much as $75 million of federal money had been funneled to advertising firms with close ties to the Liberal Party. The report said the firms were paid millions for doing little or no work.
Political observers say that Chretien dumped the scandal on Martin, departing just before the report was released.
Martin, who has said he knew nothing about the missing money, has promised to find answers.
But the new prime minister is not escaping blame, analysts said. "Here is a guy who was finance minister when the sponsorship scandal was going on in Quebec," Fotheringham said. "Voters decided: 'If he didn't know anything about it, he was incompetent. If he did know something about it, he is lying.' "
The scandal hurt the Liberals most in Quebec, where the sponsorship program was set up. It was intended to promote Canadian federalism after a 1995 referendum in which voters nearly approved a plan for Quebec to separate from the rest of Canada.
Polls indicate the Bloc Quebecois party could capture 65 seats in Quebec, leaving the Liberals with only 15. The new momentum has revived talk of separation. Bernard Landry, leader of Parti Quebecois, told the Globe and Mail newspaper this week: "With 60 Bloc members in Ottawa and the more than 40 seats we have in Quebec, sovereignists will be stronger than ever."
The Liberals also face likely losses in Ontario, the most populous province. Aside from the national scandal, provincial Liberals have raised taxes and introduced health care fees in a country where free health care is a matter of pride.
Analysts said that Liberals underestimated the Conservative Party, a merger of the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance. The two parties had split the vote in Ontario in previous elections, allowing the Liberals to win. This time, the united Conservatives are set to win in old Liberal strongholds.
In addition, Stephen Harper, the new Conservative leader, has successfully swatted away Liberal attacks. Harper supports the U.S.-led war in Iraq and increased military spending and opposes same-sex marriage and abortion. Apparently unflustered by Liberal attacks, he told Martin during a recent debate, "One doesn't have to be a Liberal to be Canadian."
Harper also attacked Martin's record as finance minister, asking Canadians whether they felt they had better health care 10 years ago, before Martin made severe cuts in the system. "Now, you say you are going to fix what you cut," Harper told Martin.
Some analysis of poll results has suggested the possibility of a minority government if no party wins a majority of the 308 parliamentary seats to be filled, forcing a coalition with another party to pass laws. Canada has not had a minority government since 1979, when Joe Clark, a Progressive Conservative, was prime minister. His party stayed in power only eight months.
"Usually a minority government means a country is very much divided," said Donald Abelson, a political scientist at the University of Western Ontario.
Harper has promised to cut corporate taxes but also government-sponsored corporate subsidies. He said he believes in traditional marriage and says the definition of that should be left to Parliament, not the courts, which have taken on activist roles in shaping social policy with rulings endorsing same-sex marriage, aboriginal rights, and hunting and fishing on native lands.
This election campaign has seen a surge in the strength of the New Democratic Party, which in the election of 2000 barely held onto enough seats to maintain party status in Parliament. This time around, polls show the NDP at 18 percent and being courted by the Liberals as a possible partner if the Liberals lead a minority government. The new leader of the NDP, Jack Layton, has appeared to be savvy in televised debates, hammering Martin on health care cuts, homeless shelters and working with the United States on a missile defense shield.
Martin says the election should be about repairing the health care system, which requires some patients to wait months for crucial surgery or tests. He said he still hopes to win a majority in Parliament: "That is what all we Liberals are going to make the fight of our lives."
But polls indicate that a Liberal majority is unlikely. "If Martin in fact wins Monday night, it will be very, very narrow," Fotheringham said. "There is no way he can win a majority. He may get a minority, and that would be a disgrace, considering the lead he had. . . . The voters here are volatile. Hold onto your hats."