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Jekyll, Hyde and the election campaign that's begun

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So the federal election campaign has begun. All three national leaders are on the road setting out their cases. How are things going so far?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper seems to be running a Jekyll and Hyde campaign.

There is that nice Dr. Jekyll Harper. Reassuringly boring and stolid, he tells the people of Canada the priority must be to govern the nation in a stable, responsible manner so that the fragile economic recovery can be allowed to continue undisturbed. Throw in a few more appearances on stage behind the piano, and Dr. Jekyll Harper just might have the chops required to credibly campaign for a majority government in Ontario ... where it will be made or broken. Canadians are worried about the economy. They are probably not in much of a risk-taking mood with its recovery. The Prime Minister could build a case around these bones.

But then there is that nasty Mr. Hyde Harper. He is a very different proposition. Mr. Hyde Harper is back on his dime of wanting to bankrupt the opposition parties by bringing big money back into politics on terms that will only work for his party. Mr. Hyde Harper believes that middle-class families wake up in the morning worried that Canada needs to proceed with the purchase of billions of dollars worth of new military fighter jets. And Mr. Hyde Harper demands support in the election or, he threatens, the opposition parties will... will.... WORK TOGETHER. Yes they will, and that must be stopped.

Mr. Hyde Harper is no sale to the majority of the people of Canada. So, hopefully, we'll be hearing lots more from him about bankrupting other parties, buying military jets, and why parliamentarians must not be permitted to work together. The last thing Canada needs is a majority Conservative government. Mr. Hyde Harper is the politician in the best position to make sure that doesn't happen.

New Democrat Jack Layton, Canadians' second choice to be Prime Minister, is setting up to be the "not Harper" on all the major issues. Mr. Harper apparently wants an election. Mr. Layton is full of ideas about how to make this Parliament work.

Mr. Harper wants to focus on buying more military hardware and on cutting more taxes for rich people. Mr. Layton is setting out some detailed, step-by-step proposals to help middle-class families instead. Like giving them a break on their home heating costs. Like providing some economic security through an incrementally better pension system.

And crucially, Mr. Harper is campaigning on a promise that if elected, he will never work with other parties and other parliamentarians. Mr. Layton is campaigning on a promise than if elected, he will do the exact opposite -- he will work with other colleagues in the House, if and as the numbers justify it. On this last issue, Mr. Harper's campaign helpfully highlights one of Mr. Layton's characteristics that Canadians like the most.

Finally, there is the hapless Michael Ignatieff. What the heck is he running on? It's hard to say, but three different themes seem to be rattling around in there somewhere.

First of all, Mr. Ignatieff is running as Ronald Reagan. Cribbing word-for-word from Reagan's 1980 campaign, Mr. Ignatieff is asking if Canadians are better off than they were before Jimmy Carter.... err, Mr. Harper. There is a deep underlying seam of Liberal arrogance and sense of entitlement in this campaign theme. Mr. Ignatieff is suggesting that Canadians reflect on the fact that life in all its aspects was infinitely better under the previous Liberal government than under the current one. Now is the time to recognize our error, to repent, and to return to the way things are supposed to be.

To underline this theme, Mr. Ignatieff is then explicitly asking Canadians to recognize the Liberal party's entitlement to office. We don't live in a democratic system in Canada, Mr. Ignatieff wants you to know. Voters have no choice in the matter, no options or any opportunity to make up their own minds. They must vote Liberal or they will get Mr. Harper and his Conservative policies -- most of which Mr. Ignatieff voted for in Parliament and strongly supports.

Finally, for obvious reasons, Mr. Ignatieff is scrambling to try to create some policy room between himself and a Conservative government he has maintained in office and would fit comfortably within. Mr. Ignatieff and his version of the Liberal Party voted with the Conservatives in Parliament to enact Mr. Harper's program of corporate tax cuts -- but Mr. Ignatieff now suddenly demands these cuts be temporarily frozen, even though in the same breath Mr. Ignatieff says he strongly supports more corporate taxes cuts since, after all, he is not the NDP. Got all that?

What to make of it? What I make of it is that it seems that in every election, there will be a leader setting out to prove that running for prime minister is not an entry-level job -- a role that falls in this cycle to this Liberal leader.

It's too early to tell what effect all of this will have on public opinion. But one thing we can say for sure is that two or three more weeks of it are going to heighten public expectations of a spring election. In many ways that campaign started a week ago.

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