JERUSALEM – The Israeli political party founded by Ariel Sharon formally kicked off its election campaign Tuesday with a wide lead in polls ahead of March elections even as its leader remained in a coma after suffering a massive stroke.
The Kadima Party was far ahead in the polls when Sharon was stricken Jan. 4, and despite observations by experts that Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert lacks Sharon's broad-based appeal and charisma, the party's poll numbers have remained high.
Sharon's closest political ally has moved almost seamlessly into his mentor's position while symbolically leaving Sharon's chair at the Cabinet table empty.
Speaking in front of two giant posters of Sharon at Kadima's political rally Tuesday, Olmert said Israel is "not frightened by outside threats, and not by the events of the past few days," referring to the victory of the militant group Hamas in Palestinian elections last week.
Olmert has said that Israel would have no contacts with a Palestinian government led by Hamas.
Outlining his party's goals, Olmert said, "The team that sits here in this hall will have to lead the state of Israel to two major goals. The first — defining the final borders of the state of Israel as a state with a clear and solid Jewish majority. The second — seriously and responsibly dealing with the social gaps in the state of Israel."
Kadima, led by politicians who left other parties to join Sharon, began its campaign before March 28 elections with a gala gathering at Jerusalem's convention center. Olmert entered the hall to the sounds of the party's new election jingle and following the debut clip of the party's TV advertisement, which prominently featured Sharon.
"Sharon's spirit is here," said advertising executive Reuven Adler, a close friend of Sharon who helped found the party. "We are missing our engine, but we have an excellent replacement," he said, referring to Olmert.
In his speech, Olmert paid homage to his mentor saying, "Kadima was born first and foremost due to the determination and bravery and leadership of the movement's founder, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon."
"The man who formed the face of the state of Israel in the last years, the man who established Kadima continues to courageously battle his illness, and we are all with him. We will continue together with the mission that Ariel Sharon bestowed on our shoulders."
Surveys show Kadima winning more than 40 seats in the 120-seat parliament, with its two main rivals, the moderate Labor and Likud, the hard-line party Sharon abandoned, lagging below 20 seats each.
Sharon formed the party in November after rebels in Likud, which he also founded three decades ago, tried to block all his initiatives because of opposition to his unilateral pullout from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank in the summer. More than a third of Likud's 40 members of parliament followed him to Kadima, as did prominent members of Labor, including elder statesman and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shimon Peres.
On Tuesday, Olmert introduced the party's slate of 50 candidates for parliament.
Following Olmert at the top of the list are Peres, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Education Minister Meir Sheetrit and Avi Dichter, recently retired as head of the Shin Bet security agency.
The list includes five other former senior defense officials, including Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who occupies the number eight spot. The list of 50 includes 11 women, eight university professors and six immigrants from the former Soviet Union.