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Bush may find political soul mate in Canada's Harper

CANCUN, Mexico—President Bush arrives in Cancun on Wednesday for a two-day summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox and new conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a political soul mate who's bent on improving his country's frosty relations with Washington.

While talks with Fox about immigration are expected to dominate the session at this Yucatan vacation resort, Harper will be pushing his own agenda, and when Bush sits down with him on Thursday, he'll see a mirror image of himself.

Harper, a 46-year-old economist, rose to Canada's highest office by talking about his religious faith, vowing to cut taxes and end government corruption, and promising to reconsider a same-sex marriage law that Canada's Parliament approved last June—all themes that Bush campaigned on in 2000 and 2004.

In addition, Harper said he'll consider the White House's offer for Canada to join in fielding a continental ballistic missile shield, an invitation that former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin rejected.

"If George Bush can't get along with Stephen Harper, he can't get along with any world leader," said David Taras, a political science professor at the University of Calgary. "They're ideological cousins, if not twins."

Sworn into office last month, Harper borrowed a page from Bush's playbook and secretly traveled to Afghanistan earlier this month to meet with Canadian troops, highlight his country's contribution to the war on terrorism, and buck up domestic support for the mission.

The trip also sent a message to Washington, according to John Hulsman, an analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"That was to show the cavalry is back in town, that they're not going to be anti-American," he said. "Harper, like Bush, has a black-and-white, good-and-evil view of the world—they're cut from the same cloth."

That's a huge difference from the tattered relationships that Bush had with former Canadian Prime Ministers Martin and Jean Chretien, both members of Canada's Liberal Party.

Bush's relationship with Chretien, which was never great, eroded further after Chretien refused to send troops to Iraq. The war also strained relations between Bush and Martin, and they hit bottom last December when Martin chastised the United States at a United Nations conference for not doing enough to combat global warming.

Angry U.S. officials accused Martin, who was running for re-election against Harper, of playing the anti-American card. David Wilkins, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, issued a rare public rebuke, saying that "the United States should not be on your ballot."

Hoping to rise above the acrimonious past, Harper wants a "mature relationship" with Bush in which both men understand that if "we have to differ, we differ in a very transparent way, so there is a good understanding of why we differ," Canadian Ambassador Michael Wilson said.

Harper and Bush may become fast friends, but they still have to overcome a number of economic hurdles.

For example, Canada is the United States' largest trading partner, but the two have been engaged in a decades-long battle over soft lumber. Canada has accused the United States of unfairly imposing anti-dumping duties on Canadian softwood lumber to protect the U.S. lumber industry. Washington contends that Canada subsidizes its softwood lumber exports in violation of world trade rules.

"Softwood lumber is more than an irritant—it's a psychological symbol related to the North American Free Trade Agreement and whether America will play by the rules or whether the U.S. really likes NAFTA," Taras said.

Still, Harper's presence on the world stage will be a welcome one for Bush, who's slowly finding more foreign leaders he feels comfortable with as old foes, such as Martin, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac, fade away through election defeats, retirements or term limits.

"The world is a friendlier place for the president, but the timing is wrong," Hulsman said. "When he was riding high, he had anti-Americans to deal with. Now, he's in a political zombie state, he gets people he can work with."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Stephen Harper

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