Tuesday, March 16, 2004

TORONTO — A friend of former President Bill Clinton will find out this week whether she will get to lead Canada’s Conservative Party. Her name is Belinda Stronach, and she’s been dubbed the “It Girl” of Canadian politics.

Mrs. Stronach has also been called a “dishy blonde” by her admirers and ” Paul Martin in a cocktail dress” by her detractors. Others describe her as a younger, prettier and wealthier version of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat.

Mr. Clinton and Mrs. Stronach have been seen together on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border, playing golf, attending horse races, eating at an upscale Toronto restaurant and attending a charity function. The friendship helped spark the media interest that is driving her campaign for public office.

The London Telegraph reported last weekend that she and Mr. Clinton first met over a round of golf in 2001 and that she later told friends he had inspired her to run for office. A Canadian wire service quoted her friends saying she was “intrigued” by Mr. Clinton’s “charisma and brainpower.”

Supporters of Mrs. Stronach dismiss suggestions of a romantic link between the two as tabloid gossip. The candidate herself answers questions about her relationship politely if not somewhat shyly.

“Bill Clinton is someone that I would welcome the advice of if I had the opportunity to take it, but that’s it,” she told one television journalist.

“We don’t consult each other on a regular basis,” she added while smiling, according to a transcript of the interview.

Rumors aside, Mrs. Stronach’s candidacy in the Conservative leadership convention being held here Saturday has put a fresh face on Canadian politics. The 37-year-old two-time divorcee is rich, ambitious and, according to Fortune magazine, ranked among the world’s most powerful women.

Mrs. Stronach is worth an estimated $600 million, but describes herself as a hard-working mother and businesswoman who simply wants to change the way Ottawa works.

“Canadians have had enough of politics as usual,” she told a gathering of Toronto business leaders last month. “Ever since I entered the race, a number of people have pointed out that I lack political experience.

“But isn’t it funny: When politicians become ministers in charge of billion-dollar budgets, no one ever asks them if they have any experience running a business.”

Mrs. Stronach has never run for office, but was president and chief executive officer of the world’s seventh-biggest auto parts manufacturer a company founded by her father called Magna International.

An offshoot, Magna Entertainment Corp., controls 13 racetracks including some of the most prominent courses in the United States, such as Santa Anita in Los Angeles and Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla.

In 2002, Magna Entertainment purchased the Maryland Jockey Club for $117.5 million, giving it control of Laurel Park and Pimlico Race Course, the host track for the Preakness Stakes.

Mrs. Stronach herself is the only female chief executive outside the United States to feature on the Fortune Global 500 index of the world’s wealthiest individuals, and she cites that experience as evidence that she is ready to run a country.

“As a former CEO of a major public corporation, I was held to the high governance standards and also had to make a profit,” she said. “If I ran my company the way Paul Martin ran the finances of this country, I would have been fired.”

While Mrs. Stronach touts her track record of creating jobs and investment opportunities, her two rivals say the party recently formed with the merger of the Progressive Conservatives and Canadian Alliance needs a leader with proven political experience.

“This is not a time for on-the-job training,” said rival leadership candidate Tony Clement, a former Ontario health minister, alluding to reports that a federal election could be called as early as May or June. “Experience in government counts.”

Mrs. Stronach has also taken some positions that have sparked controversy within Conservative ranks, including her support for same-sex “marriage.”

The latest polls indicate that neither Mrs. Stronach nor Mr. Clement will be able to beat the front-runner, former Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper.

But there is no doubt that Mrs. Stronach has had an effect on the race as a result of the media attention generated by her wealth, her friends and her telegenic appearance.

“This isn’t supposed to be a glamour contest,” snapped one Conservative member of Parliament. “It’s supposed to be about who’s ready to govern.”

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