Jean Chretien spent much of his political career in Pierre Trudeau's Cabinet, working for Trudeau's vision of a unified, strong Canada.

Now Chretien, 66, has taken perhaps the biggest gamble of his 37 years in politics by calling an early election in hopes of securing for himself a legacy of leadership that not even Trudeau could match - winner of three straight majority victories. 

The self-styled "little man from Shawinigan" has always played up his working-class roots in the French-Canadian town in Quebec, speaking in a gruff, inelegant style with little subtlety. 

That has drawn unflattering portrayals in the media and discomfort over his sometimes mangled language when traveling abroad. Still, if he is elected, Chretien would become only the third Liberal leader to win three straight majorities - and the first since World War II. 

Born the 18th of 19 children, only nine of whom survived infancy, Chretien learned politics as a child by helping his father, a local organizer. He became a lawyer and was first elected to Parliament in 1963, at age 29. 

Tall and direct, with a cracked smile from birth defects that partially paralyzed his face, Chretien worked his way up to the Cabinet in five years, and went on to become the nation's first French-Canadian finance minister. 

He held several key posts during Trudeau's 15 years in power and became Liberal leader in 1990. Three years later, the party grabbed 177 of the 295 seats to make Chretien prime minister. 

The margin of victory was much more narrow in the 1997 election, with the Liberals getting 155 of the 301 seats at stake. 

While the Liberals have presided over an economic recovery under Chretien, registering record budget surpluses, much of the credit goes to Finance Minister Paul Martin, the heir apparent as prime minister. 

By the end of the election campaign, some Liberal officials were hinting openly that Chretien would step down sometime during a third term so Martin - a much more popular figure - could take over.