MONTREAL - A Conservative prime minister has launched a stirring defence of universal health care, and lauded Barack Obama in his bare-knuckle political battle to extend benefits to all Americans.

But it's not the current one.

Brian Mulroney used a speech to 1,500 Conservative supporters to wade where Prime Minister Stephen Harper has steadfastly refused to venture: the bitter U.S. debate over health reform.

The former prime minister drew parallels between Obama's uphill fight to reform health care to his own struggles as prime minister, which may have cost him popularity but benefited the country.

"Political capital is acquired to spend in great causes for one's country," Mulroney said Thursday.

"Prime ministers are not chosen to seek popularity. They are chosen to provide leadership. . . President Obama is fighting for a form of universal health care and is encountering ferocious resistance.

"The attacks on President Obama are often bitter and mean-spirited and his approval ratings are sinking like a stone. Still, he fights on. . .

"Fifty years from today, Americans will revere the name, 'Obama.' Because like his Canadian predecessors, he chose the tough responsibilities of national leadership over the meaningless nostrums of sterile partisanship that we see too much of in Canada and around the world."

The vast, crowded hotel ballroom went silent at that part of Mulroney's speech. One woman was seen snickering.

Mulroney's eagerness to take sides in the U.S. health debate was a stark and obvious contrast from Harper's reluctance to touch that political powder keg.

He made the remarks before half of Harper's cabinet -- while the prime minister was in the U.S. after a meeting with Obama.

At the height of the health debate this summer, while American town-hall meetings were occasionally erupting in fisticuffs, Harper and Obama met at a Three Amigos summit in Mexico.

During a news conference in front of media from three countries, as he stood next to Obama, Harper was asked about the U.S. battle and whether there was anything worth emulating about Canadian medicare, like its universal coverage.

Harper replied that it was a foreign debate and, besides, health care was the provinces' business -- not the federal government's.

Harper's Liberal opponents blasted him for passing up what might have been an opportunity to help a powerful ally.

But Mulroney was more than happy to make that a highlight of a long-awaited speech to hundreds of Conservative faithful.

A who's who of Canadian conservatives, past and present, converged Thursday evening at a celebration of Mulroney's massive 1984 electoral win, some looking to reinforce party unity and others just there for the get-together.

The downtown Montreal hotel where the event was taking place was buzzing with hundreds of conservatives, including ex-New Brunswick premier Bernard Lord and former prime minister Joe Clark.

The ballroom was decorated with the old Progressive Conservative banner, and old campaign posters from the era of Culture Club and Loverboy were tacked up on the walls.

"I'm very pleased that this is being done," said Clark, who underlined he is not a member of the current Conservative party.

"It focused naturally on Brian and Mila but it's also about a government that has a great deal to be proud of, that accomplished a lot.

"We took on big challenges across a wide range of issues. We got elected, but we didn't stop there. We put office to work to try and change the country."

Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams said he had come to pay tribute to Mulroney, for whom he did some work in the 1980s.

"He enabled us to be in a very, very strong financial position that we're in now," Williams said.

"If I did not have an Atlantic Accord to work with when I became premier, it might not have enabled me to do the things we're doing in Newfoundland and Labrador."

While the evening was first designed as a reunion for those who experienced the thrill of 1984, it quickly took on deeper overtones.

It became an opportunity to heal a rift between the Mulroney folks and Harper's camp, an unwelcome fissure in a party founded on a truce between its once-warring Reform and Progressive Conservative wings.

About half the current Conservative cabinet was expected to attend, including Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Environment Minister Jim Prentice.

Transport Minister John Baird, who was a 15-year-old messenger at Progressive Conservative headquarters in 1984, downplayed the significance of the presence of so many in Harper's team.

"It's exciting to be here and celebrate a great conservative victory in this country, to celebrate the end of the Trudeau era and all of the great things that were accomplished -- free trade, tax reform, a great international presence," said Baird.

Harper, who was scheduled to deliver a speech in New York on Thursday night, offered a pre-recorded a congratulatory video for the event. His wife Laureen was to attend on his behalf.

Relations between Harper and Mulroney have been severely strained since Harper called a public inquiry into Mulroney's business dealings with German lobbyist Karlheinz Schreiber, and directed his cabinet to cut off contact with the Tory icon.

Things worsened when members of Harper's entourage went around telling journalists that Mulroney was no longer a member of the party.

The clumsy move, aimed at distancing Harper from Mulroney as the inquiry unfolded, simply incensed Mulroney loyalists within the current cabinet and caused the first display of revolt by Harper's normally disciplined troops.

The feud created a divide between party brass, mostly old Reformers who saw Mulroney as an opponent, and old PCers who see the former prime minister as a lifelong friend and mentor.

Angry Tories leaked details of behind-closed-door caucus meetings. MacKay found himself pleading with party president Don Plett, now a senator, to reinstate Mulroney as a member and was resoundingly rebuffed.

Loyalty to Mulroney runs deep in conservative circles, despite the beating his reputation has taken at different points over the past 25 years.

Many of those who worked with him or in his caucus describe a leader who took a personal interest in people around him, remembered names, and always picked up the phone to make a call at life's important or difficult moments.

His victory in 1984 was a heady time for the Tories as the party grabbed a majority for the first time since John Diefenbaker in 1958. Life on Parliament Hill was turned on its head as conservatives moved into positions of power.

Mulroney had sewn together a coalition that included his home province of Quebec, just four years after a divisive referendum on sovereignty. His government brought together social conservatives, progressives, Quebec nationalists and ardent federalists.

Mulroney named women to high-profile positions in cabinet -- Barbara McDougall to external affairs, Pat Carney to trade, and Kim Campbell to justice and defence before she became the first female prime minister.

Still, it was opposition to Mulroney that spawned two parties that were to fracture the political landscape for decades: the Reform Party and the Bloc Quebecois, still a force to be reckoned with on the federal scene.

The Liberal party was able to capitalize on those divisions for 13 years, until the PCs and Canadian Alliance (the old Reform party) managed to unite.

That happened, ironically, with the help of Brian Mulroney.