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Ten years ago last month, Anne McLellan found herself sitting on a bed in Ottawa's Westin Hotel, waiting for the results of a recount in her Edmonton riding that would decide whether she became a member of Jean Chrétien's cabinet.

Ms. McLellan figured she wouldn't make it, because the cabinet was to be announced the next day, and the recount was taking so long.

Then, at around 11 p.m., her phone rang with the message that she had won the riding by a scant 11 votes. The mid-level cabinet role of natural resources minister would indeed be hers.

Today, the former constitutional lawyer, who has made a habit of eking out victories in Liberal-averse Alberta, will be invested as Canada's most powerful woman politician, taking on the roles of deputy prime minister and minister responsible for public safety.

Her burden in the Paul Martin government will be huge.

As minister of public safety, Ms. McLellan takes on the potentially explosive responsibility for defending Canada's borders, for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and the RCMP and for generally protecting the country from terrorism.

As deputy PM, she becomes both Mr. Martin's main weapon in his effort to take seats in the West and the symbol of the importance women will have in his administration. She and Ralph Goodale, who becomes finance minister, are the biggest winners in today's cabinet shuffle, and her challenges in reversing Western antipathy to the Liberals will be considerable.

"They have a huge psychological mountain to climb," said David Taras, a University of Calgary political scientist. "If there is not a follow-through on promises, Mr. Martin will stumble."

Ms. McLellan was chosen for her role partly because of her close friendship with Mr. Martin and the location of her political base.

She has been a strong supporter of the new prime minister since her election and has managed to stay in the cabinet of Mr. Chrétien despite it. She has served in the posts of natural resources, justice and health. She counts among her accomplishments the establishment of a wide-ranging anti-terrorism bill and the implementation of this year's national health accord.

Ms. McLellan, 53, was born in Nova Scotia and has a law degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax. She was a law professor at the University of New Brunswick until moving to Edmonton in 1980, where she was acting dean of the University of Alberta's faculty of law. She is a former member of the board of directors of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Alberta Legal Aid. She lives in Edmonton with John Law, a university professor. She recently began participating in triathalon relay races in a bid to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of physical fitness.

Colleagues describe her as meticulous and careful, two attributes that will almost certainly serve her well in the role of public safety minister. It is an area that, given the sensitivity of the border and relations with the United States, requires a steady and cautious hand.

But that same caution has also earned her criticism for sometimes not moving boldly enough.

"She doesn't cause a lot of trouble, and that's a useful thing," said a source. "She's careful and she understands her briefs, but it's moving the thing to action that's the challenge for her."

For example, Ms. McLellan has been criticized internally for not moving quickly enough in establishing a national health council, a key promise last February in a health accord with the provinces. Some say she gives in too easily to provincial demands and is particularly mindful of her home province and its sometimes obstreperous Premier, Ralph Klein.

"Why did it take so long to get the health council?" asked the source. "Sometimes you can be too nice to the provinces."

In her role as deputy prime minister, Ms. McLellan will speak for Mr. Martin in the House of Commons when he is away. She does not, however, speak French, and some observers consider her condescending in her answers.

But Ms. McLellan's success in stick-handling other significant pieces of legislation cannot be denied. She is credited with avoiding controversy while pushing through the anti-terrorist legislation and has been given the task of controlling damage stemming from, among other issues, the controversial long-gun registry. Alberta's oil industry generally speaks highly of her, a strong ally as she campaigns on behalf of those Liberals trying to win seats in the city of Calgary.

She is not afraid to play politics with her elbows up. In a long-running rivalry with former heritage minister Sheila Copps, Ms. McLellan is said to have given as good as she got.

But simply making her the most important politician from Western Canada since former Tory deputy prime minister Don Mazankowski is no guarantee she will be able to deliver the region.

Ms. McLellan will be judged on her ability to deliver on key pledges that are important to the West. For example, how will she deal with Mr. Klein's request to appoint to the Senate one of the individuals elected in a special Alberta-wide vote?

She might like to take a page out of the book of former Liberal cabinet minister Lloyd Axworthy, a minister known for his ability to deliver federal plums to his home city of Winnipeg.

Her natural caution has prevented Ms. McLellan from playing that part of the political game.

However, there are signs that even that is changing. Just a week ago, health officials insisted that a new $10-million institute devoted to patient safety be located in her hometown. The suggestion earned the criticism of some, but the minister did not backtrack.

Prof. Taras thinks the jury is still out on whether the appointments of Ms. McLellan and Mr. Goodale will be the catalyst that allows the Liberals to win more seats west of the Ontario-Manitoba border.

"Just because you have western faces doesn't mean you can capture the spirit of the West," he said. "There is no question they will sell in the West. But do they have the coattails?"