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Canada's Harper shows cordial, firm sides to Bush

Written by: Staff
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CANCUN, Mexico, Apr 1 (Reuters) Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper walked a tightrope this week in his new relationship with U S President George W Bush, seeking cordiality to solve trade and security problems but trying to avoid being seen as a lackey.

At yesterday's close of a summit in this Mexican resort, during which Bush and Harper had two hours of direct talks and substantially more also involving Mexico's Vicente Fox, Bush praised Harper as one he could do business with.

''I find him to be a very open, straightforward fellow. If he's got a problem, he's willing to express it in a way that's clear for all to understand,'' Bush told a news conference, smiling at Harper.

''And that's the way I like to deal with people.'' The balancing act is a perennial challenge for Canada's leaders.

The Conservative Harper defeated Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin in the Jan. 23 election after a campaign in which Martin raised Washington's hackles through attacks on U.S. policy on climate change and lumber trade.

It was ironic because Martin had taken over from Liberal Jean Chretien two years earlier pledging a more sophisticated relationship.

Harper and Bush agreed on Thursday for their officials to look at restarting negotiations on the long-running dispute over U.S. duties on Canadian lumber shipments.

But Harper was careful to warn Bush publicly that if there were no settlement he would continue legal challenges and increase support for the Canadian lumber industry.

The second-most-pressing issue on Canada's agenda was to soften the impact of new U.S. requirement that all visitors have passports or passport-like documents at airports by the end of 2006 and at land crossings by the end of 2007.

Harper registered his concerns with Bush but also appeared to concede that little would be gained by jumping up and down, rather than seeking agreement on a document that would be easier to obtain and hurt tourism and business less.

''We're running out of time,'' Harper told reporters. ''I don't think there's any prospect of Congress changing the law between now and the deadline (at the end of the year).'' The two leaders instructed cabinet members to work on an acceptable travel document -- Bush described a smart card that can be swiped like a credit card -- as a matter of high priority.

The two men demonstrated a similar approach.

''Mr Bush is a very direct man, a man who always prefers action and results, and I appreciate these qualities,'' said Harper, a policy wonk who admits to being short on charisma.

He said Bush also recognized his share of responsibility for tensions that have existed with Canada in the past several years.

The prime minister did not elaborate.

Harper sparked mild amusement on Thursday when he toured Mayan ruins with Fox and Bush wearing a tan safari vest, prompting White House photographers to ask if he was a Secret Service man guarding the president.

Bush also seemed bored when Harper spoke to reporters in French for several minutes straight at the end of a bilateral meeting on Thursday, with no one interpreting for the president.

However the hiccup did not stop the two from agreeing to meet further, in Washington, later this spring.

REUTERS SK RN0440

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