Harper on the Campaign Trail

The most disparaged job in this election campaign--even more than, say, scripting attack ads--must be checking photo ID outside a Stephen HARPER rally.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 2, 2011

The most disparaged job in this election campaign--even more than, say, scripting attack ads--must be checking photo ID outside a Stephen HARPER rally.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on May 2, 2011

Harper on the Campaign Trail

The most disparaged job in this election campaign--even more than, say, scripting attack ads--must be checking photo ID outside a Stephen HARPER rally. Harper draws criticism for appearing only before carefully screened crowds, and had to apologize when a student was barred for posting a picture of herself with Michael IGNATIEFF on Facebook. But an hour before the Prime Minister is scheduled to deliver his stump speech to the CONSERVATIVE faithful at a Toronto airport hotel, the volunteers working the four tables at the entrance are all smiles. With cheerful efficiency, they match names on driver's licences to those on lists of invited loyalists. And nobody seems to mind.

There's something about this mundane quality-control exercise that sums up the Harper campaign. Obsessive attention to who gets in may generate press scorn and opposition ridicule, but it works. The audiences are uniformly enthusiastic. His supporters don't show up expecting to be part of a mob; they're proud to be on a party roster and to have received a computerized phone or email invitation. The same risk-averse attention to detail, combined with an understanding of his base, dominates every aspect of Harper's run for re-election. And it was on display in every aspect of last Thursday's rally--Harper's first big outing after the TV debates that marked the midpoint of the five-week campaign.

The venue for that watershed moment is worth noting. It might look like an airport-strip hotel anywhere, but this Hilton is in Etobicoke North, a Liberal-held riding on Toronto's western edge. The coveted ethnic vote is big here, and the suburban housing tracts are prime territory for the Conservative pitch to middle-class families. If he can't grab this sort of seat, Harper can't win the majority he craves. As it happens, Ignatieff is slated to hold a rally the next evening, about a four-hour drive northwest, in Sudbury, Ont. And for this post-debate event, too, the location is meaningful. He'll be visiting a former Liberal stronghold the NDP won in 2008. If Ignatieff can't claim back that sort of seat, then his campaign is doomed.

By the time those ID-checking Tory volunteers take up their posts, about an hour before Harper's scheduled arrival, the whole area around the Hilton is festooned in blue. The strip of grass along the highway off-ramp just outside has sprouted dozens of signs for the local Conservative candidate, Priti Lamba, whose family, like about a third of the riding's population, immigrated from South Asia. But a protest has sprung up, too. About 20 demonstrators gather to ridicule a Tory campaign organizer's email asking for party members to dress in "national folklore costumes" as a backdrop for Harper. The tactic wasn't sanctioned by the national campaign. Still, the demonstrators pounce on what they see as evidence the Tories are only superficially interested in diversity. "They only care," complains Avvy Go, a Toronto lawyer and anti-poverty activist, "about what we wear and what we eat."

The throng patiently filing in, however, reflects the area's diversity. There are plenty of Sikh turbans. An organizer points out that the lists of approved guests feature lots of Eastern European names, a major factor in Ignatieff's own riding, nearby Etobicoke-Lakeshore. Lamba, a short woman in a light-grey pantsuit, bustles around, chatting with volunteers. During a brief interview, she says the topic she hears about most often is crime. What's her message on the issue? She looks shocked to be asked such a question. As if to a rather dim child, she recites: "Conservatives tough on crime, Liberals soft on crime."

Keeping it simple is the Conservative formula. The set-up at the Hilton follows the template used by Harper's road crew since the first days of this run. Chairs are arranged in a square around the space where Harper will hold forth with a hand-held microphone and no podium. A huge Canadian flag and tiers of raised seating provide the backdrop, facing a bank of raised TV cameras on the other side. In front of the media area is the large screen where Harper's speaking text will appear.

By 7:15 p.m., only one of the four tables outside the ballroom is still manned, checking for stragglers. Hovering to make sure there are no last-minute hitches is Charles Donley, a Tory stalwart who ran here in much harder times for the party, against Liberal heavyweight Allan Rock when he held this riding for Jean Chrétien. Donley is working behind the scenes this time. He talks with deep satisfaction about how this crowd, more than 500 strong, was assembled on very short notice. The event was only firmly scheduled when the previous evening's French-language TV debate was moved up a night to avoid clashing with game one of the Montreal-Boston playoff hockey series.

By 7:40 p.m.,O Canada has been sung, Lamba has had her turn talking, and Peter Kent, Harper's environment minister and the MP for a riding north of Toronto, takes over in his familiar, former TV anchor's voice. It's standard for a prominent cabinet minister to introduce Harper. As Kent finishes, technicians fire up Collective Soul's Better Now, Harper's theme song for the second campaign in a row. "Oh, I'm newly calibrated, all shiny and clean . . . " go the lyrics, but only the power chords cut through the cheering. At the back of the room, some supporters stand on chairs to get a look. Laureen Harper waves. The Prime Minister takes the mike. Behind him, six audience members hold up big blue letters--H-A-R-P-E-R--cut out a bit too neatly, and positioned a touch too fortuitously, to be anything but stage-managed.

Harper's text is only slightly altered from the one he's been delivering all campaign. That's telling. His performance in the debates was error-free. Had he messed up, he might actually be newly calibrated tonight. As it stands, polls suggest the only post-debate danger is to Ignatieff from a buoyant Jack Layton. So Harper goes through his paces. The centrepiece of his speech is a call-and-response section in which he contrasts his Conservatives with a Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois "coalition" point by point. "The coalition said no to reducing the deficit, Conservatives say yes without raising taxes." The crowd is meant to catch on and chime in with a rousing "yes, without raising taxes" at the end of each line. They sort of do, but raggedly. A visiting European journalist wonders why Harper attempts what is clearly, for him, an awkward bit of showmanship.

Yet it doesn't hurt. The crowd hadn't expected Harper to be spellbinding. His appeal is personal competence and policy clarity, not charisma. Nor is he relying on winning positive media reviews. He takes only a few journalists' questions a day and none from ordinary voters. The point of the rally is to pump up volunteers in these key ridings without any surprises. An hour after Harper has gone, his tour crew swiftly dismantles the room. Two workers carefully fold up the big flag.

The next day, it's a straight shot northwest up Highway 400 toward Sudbury. Held by the Liberals since 1968, the riding was one of six in Ontario, five in the province's north, the NDP took from the Liberals in 2008. An hour before Ignatieff's scheduled 6:30 p.m. rally at the downtown Radisson, there's no Liberal red in sight outside. Just inside the lobby door, a single campaign sign greets guests. Checking in at the hotel's front desk, guests are told Ignatieff's event is open to them. An invitation has also been extended through the local media. There'll be no list of invited partisans.

Ignatieff's crew is setting up in the Grand Paris room. Hovering nearby is Quito Maggi, a professional campaign manager brought in to run Liberal candidate Carol Hartman's bid to win back this seat. Maggi wears a sharp suit and the sleep-deprived look of his trade, and when he pulls out his smartphone, he glares at its screen like a man waiting for word of a kidney match. For him, Ignatieff's visit is all about firing up the local volunteers he needs to knock on doors. "It's a momentum-builder," he says. But the Liberals can't afford to focus as tightly as the Tories on riding-level strategy. Ignatieff needs to orchestrate a national swing to cut into Harper's sustained lead of about 10 points in the polls. Layton's solid debate performance made matters worse for them. While Harper strives to avoid mistakes, Ignatieff must start taking risks.

By 6:15 p.m., about 220 voters fill all the chairs arranged in a tight rectangle around the patch of parquet dance floor where Ignatieff will hold forth. A hundred or so more take up standing room around the periphery. There's a Liberal backdrop screen facing the row of TV cameras, and local candidates' signs on the walls. Hartman, a local lawyer, introduces Ignatieff, and as his campaign song blares--a rollicking Ashley MacIsaac fiddle instrumental--he enters with his wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, along the lane marked off on the floor in masking tape.

No jacket, no tie, no teleprompter. Ignatieff conducts these town hall sessions in the freewheeling style he honed on a bus tour last summer and a series of "Open Mike" sessions last fall. Harper cleaves to a script; Ignatieff feeds off the moment. He tries to set an uplifting tone: "This isn't show business, it's democracy." After talking for about 20 minutes about his platform, he opens the floor to unpredictable questions. The themes are all over the map, climate change to Arctic sovereignty, health care to the local economy. A trucker in a cowboy hat prefaces a question about home care by telling how he's had to give up the highway to tend to his sick wife. A retired miner presses the Liberal leader to be tougher on Harper, asking, "Why are you so nice?"

After more than an hour, Ignatieff begins to wrap up. When he starts musing about a Bruce Springsteen song with the refrain "Rise up," reporters travelling with him come to attention. This is new. He says he's been thinking about how blasé voters are about the Prime Minister's failings. Canadians "kind of shrug," Ignatieff says, when Harper shuts down Parliament, or say "so what?" over news that he had a convicted fraudster on staff. At the end of the litany, Ignatieff laments, "And people say, it's just all political games, who cares?" Then he veers back to the Boss. "And I kept hearing that refrain from Bruce Springsteen--rise up." Then louder: "Rise up!" And again, louder still: "Rise up, Canada!" The crowd finally gets to its feet, cheering, and Ignatieff shouts, "Rise up! Rise up! Rise up! Rise up!"

It's clearly meant for the cameras, but comes too late for that night's main newscasts. Pundits are split on what to make of it. Some see passion, others contrivance. Whatever it was, Ignatieff's rise up moment couldn't have been less like Harper's outing the evening before. Just past the campaign's midpoint, the two rallies set up a study in contrasts. The Conservatives are strategic and steady. The Liberals are improvising, searching for a message or a moment that will dramatically shift the course of a contest in which time, as much as the Tories, has become their enemy.

Maclean's May 2, 2011