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Faster than a speeding bullet, the lean Superman, a.k.a. Jean Chrétien, swooshes down Mont-Sainte-Anne on the weekend right into the lens of a conveniently located Canadian Press photographer. Of course it ends up on the front pages of newspapers across the country the next day.

Funny thing about the timing, eh? Not all that dissimilar from a 1993 demonstration of his athletic prowess on water skis just before the federal election when there were questions about his health -- questions, it turned out, that now seem totally groundless.

This time the skiing photo is published just as the speculation about the Prime Minister's longevity is heating up. Is this speculation equally groundless?

Whether there is any real substance behind the time-for-a-leadership-change hype, which was given a big boost by an Angus Reid poll in this paper reporting that 61 per cent of those surveyed think Mr. Chrétien should step aside before the next election, the Prime Minister's handlers have obviously decided they have a perception problem to deal with.

One of the obvious strategies was to hastily crank up a round of newspaper interviews, including one with the Prime Minister's most persistent critic, The National Post. The newspaper is seduced into lavishing two full pages of positive coverage on their bête noire plus a big front-page picture and a war-declared headline, "I'm running."

According to Mr. Chrétien and all of his acolytes, both on the record and off, the plan to stay has been a sure thing since last summer. Indeed it was a major theme attached to the August cabinet shuffle. So by the usual news value calculus, this shouldn't merit more than passing notice in the context of the Liberal Party of Canada's biennial convention, which begins tomorrow.

Could it be that Mr. Chrétien's relatively new communications advisers are being spooked by a handful of Finance Minister Paul Martin's staffers? Mr. Martin's enthusiastic supporters have been feeding speculation about the Prime Minister's future and drawing attention to concern Liberals may have about fighting the next election without him.

Or are there some live coals beneath all that smoke? At the very least, there has been enough heat to raise the question of when an experienced and successful leader should retire. Very few politicians have been able to imitate baseball icon Ted Williams, who walked out of Fenway Park into retirement after hitting his 521st home run.

Britain's Dame Margaret Thatcher had to be pushed by an ungrateful caucus. Former prime minister John Turner would say that his predecessor, Pierre Trudeau, stayed too long before his walk in the snow. Kim Campbell would say the same about Brian Mulroney.

However, Mr. Chrétien is in a different position. Yes, there was one part of the Angus Reid poll that indicated he should let someone else have a turn. But there were other parts that indicated he is at the top of his game, such as a 60-per-cent approval rating, leagues above any of his rivals.

An even higher number of respondents, 70 per cent, said his government is on the right track.

Mr. Chrétien, now 66, took the opportunity in those interviews to point out he is still a young and healthy man, to which the skiing photos attest. His only concession to age is a tasteful dye job. Two of his predecessors, Lester Pearson and Louis St. Laurent, were 67 when first elected prime minister. He is obviously enjoying the job, and there is something about being at the centre of power that often shields the power-holder from the reality faced by the governed.

Some back-bench Liberal MPs have screwed up enough courage to make the career-limiting move of saying on the record that it's time for Mr. Chrétien to pass the torch. Such comments will be temporarily obscured by the hoopla of the convention. But they could become catalysts for broader sentiment in the party as time goes on.

Similarly, the Human Resources Development grants controversy, whatever its ultimate impact, has already firmly associated Mr. Chrétien with old-fashioned, ward-heeling politics. Some of the certainties of last summer or even last month may be slipping.