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Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau and executive assistant Louis-Alexandre Lanthier during a campaign stop in St-Bruno, Quebec, February 21, 2013. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)
Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau and executive assistant Louis-Alexandre Lanthier during a campaign stop in St-Bruno, Quebec, February 21, 2013. (Christinne Muschi For The Globe and Mail)

LIBERALS

Inside Justin Trudeau's war room Add to ...

Justin Trudeau is in a black Mercedes compact SUV, on the road between a seniors’ residence in Victoriaville, Que., and a food court in Sherbrooke. At the wheel is a young organizer named Marie-Laurence Lapointe, whose dad was a major fundraiser for Mr. Trudeau’s own father.

The Liberal scion is just beginning a conference call with his senior aides, who are scattered around central Canada. On the line are his close friend and senior strategist Gerald Butts, his policy advisers Mike McNair and Robert Asselin, and his press secretary Kate Monfette.

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The 41-year-old son of Canada’s 15th prime minister is still learning the finer arts of his craft. But the Liberal leadership race – in which, six weeks before the April 14 vote, he is running ahead of all seven of his rivals – offers the perfect opportunity to hone his skills and nurture an organization to bring his badly hobbled, third-place party into the next election.

His ultimate goal is to retool the machinery of power in Ottawa to respond to both the communication styles and practical needs of a new generation. But on this Friday morning he is checking in to get his team’s read on the day’s news, put out any immediate fires and prepare for what might come his way at the midday media scrum.

The mood is light: Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Butts lament the Habs’ overtime loss the previous night, while Mr. McNair revels in a Maple Leafs victory. At one point, however, Mr. Asselin urges Mr. Trudeau to stop talking about what percentages would give Quebec sovereigntists a referendum victory.

The party’s policy has long been that 50 per cent plus one would not be enough, without further specifics. But in a question-and-answer session earlier in the week, Mr. Trudeau suddenly said his threshold would be over 66 per cent, angering some Quebeckers and creating a commotion in the media.

“We are giving oxygen to this story,” says Mr. Asselin, an academic and former junior-hockey player, quietly but forcefully.

He doesn’t need to belabour his point. “They are trying to milk my comments as much as they can,” Mr. Trudeau agrees. “If I’m asked about it … I’ll say that is not what people are talking to me about on the ground – that people are focused on the future, their jobs and those issues. …”

The group also assesses what’s coming out of the other leadership-campaign camps.

Ms. Monfette (in French): “I guess you’ve heard Marc Garneau [the former astronaut and current Liberal contender] in the news this morning about your comments on the 66-per cent and everything that followed. Also, [Liberal MP] Joyce Murray is in the news, given that she has won the support of [scientist and TV host] David Suzuki.”

Mr. Trudeau (in French): “Listen, regarding Marc, I’ll stick to the high road. I had a small question on that this morning, and I repeated the lines about the fact we have differences of opinion, which has always been a strength of the Liberal Party, and that at the end of the day, we will be a very strong, united team to face off against Mr. Mulcair and Mr. Harper.”

(He switches to English.)

“To reinforce that, and I wanted to check with you guys, but I’m thinking, like I said yesterday, that it’s a good thing that David is supporting Joyce. What we need to do is highlight the fact that he is supporting a Liberal candidate, and that’s a positive piece of message, that he sees a space and a role for us.

“Secondly, he is highlighting the ‘supporter’ class” – the new arrangement that allows non-party-members to sign up to vote for the leadership, a key to Mr. Trudeau’s strategy – “and if we can jump on his bandwagon a bit, or at least use him as an encouragement to make sure we get more and more supporters for the Liberal Party, that’s great. So I’m thinking of tweeting out something later on that this afternoon.”

Mr. Butts: “Yeah, I agree, the key message there, and this references what you just said about Garneau, is that positive campaigns work, right? Joyce is running a positive campaign and she is attracting support because of it.”

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