Moderating Stephen Harper

This is the week the Liberals start to attack Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada. The soft launch of the campaign has already occurred thanks to a leak which put some of the ad copy on the front page of The Globe and Mail.

The ads will be vicious and informative. They should work. Liberals will hear that Harper wanted to go into Iraq, and that he plans to hand social spending over to the provinces. The 25 per cent of the electorate that self-identifies as Liberals are the main target audience for the American style negative advertising.Getting that Liberal 25 per cent to the polls is how the party won the 2000 election. With nearly 40 per cent of Canadians staying home on election day 2000, the 25 per cent of eligible voters that chose a Liberal candidate represented 40 per cent of ballots cast.

They had some degree of allegiance to the Liberals and were numerous enough to provide for a majority Chrétien government. That's the real democratic deficit, to borrow a phrase gone missing now that Paul Martin is prime minister rather than a candidate for the leadership of his party.

The desired side effect of negative advertising is that it turns off non-partisans, people with little or no attachment to a particular party. Eligible voters stay at home because the ads lead them to dislike what is on offer, and to reject party politics. So, the Liberal attack ads will also work, if they help ensure that one in four eligible voters is enough for a majority again this year. The Liberals' best friend is voter apathy.

Harper will have negative ads of his own. But what is more important to the election outcome is how he presents himself in Ontario where — in order to lead a minority government — he needs 20 to 30 seats.

For a start he was raised in Toronto. Look for some photo-ops outside his childhood dwelling in Leaside. That worked for Lucien Bouchard when he ran as a Tory in a Quebec riding not his own but where his family had lived.

Check to see who is running the Ontario campaign. If John Laschinger is in charge, expect the Conservatives to look like, well, Conservatives. If itâe(TM)s a Reform/Alliance type this will take some pressure off the Liberals.

Harper has got some advisors who will want to keep him on message, the same Reform party lines that ensure defeat in Ontario. If Tom Flanagan plays a leading role, the Liberal attack ads will get some independent verification.

What makes Harper a serious politician, unlike Stockwell Day, is his poise under pressure. Look for him to do well in leadership debates.

Harper's biggest problem may not be the Liberals. It will probably be his own party. They are not ready for an election. The new riding associations are disorganized and squabbling is rampant between old Reformers and older Tories. In fact, they are almost as divided as the Liberals. That is why Conservatives will roll out their own attack ads, hoping to speak directly to antipathy to Liberals in both wings of the new party.

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