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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 ...

They know that Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party has built up a powerful organization. But they believe much of the country feels the Harper government is overly centralized, leaving citizens disengaged.

“Organization is key,” Mr. Trudeau says. “To me, it means creating a structure in which every single citizen can connect directly and easily if they want.”

Reaching beyond his pedigree

Mr. Trudeau certainly makes connections when he’s out campaigning. He particularly likes to drop by food courts at lunch hour, going from table to table. Most people recognize him instantly, and many ask to take pictures with him. A few women get him to sign their address books and seem slightly disappointed when he doesn’t leave a phone number.

Mr. Trudeau’s plan to hook Canadians back into the political process combines personal contact with heavy use of social media. They have an army of 7,000 volunteers and data on tens of thousands of supporters.

“This is them, this is us – this is what we are a part of in our democracy,” he says.

This democratic populism can be a bit of an awkward fit with his pedigree.

“He’s royalty,” says Clarice Glaude-Mullin, who was born in Ontario but has lived in Quebec for 50 years, after a quick encounter in Brossard. “He gives me goosebumps.”

France Roy-Portant, a retired nurse from Granby, Que., says, “I remember Trudeaumania” – but she does not have entirely fond memories of it, especially Pierre Trudeau’s final term in office, when he controversially repatriated the Constitution without Quebec’s assent. Still, she says seeing Justin on the campaign trail “makes me feel young again.”

Perhaps to counter any perceptions of elitism (the Conservatives already paint him as a “left-wing dreamer”), Mr. Trudeau has tried to make himself an open book: He laid out his entire financial situation to the Ottawa Citizen, including his six-figure income as a public speaker before he entered politics and his $1.2-million inheritance.

There remains a sense of glamour around his private life with his equally photogenic wife Sophie Grégoire and their two young children, Xavier (born in 2007) and Ella-Grace (2009).

He confides to a table of retirees at the Galeries de St-Hyacinthe that the couple are actually thinking of going for another baby – though that would mean “I’d have to spend the night at home once in a while,” he says, to a round of laughter.

In fact, Mr. Trudeau says he tries never to spend more than four or five days away – and that he’s sworn to avoid the kind of break-up that hit his family when he was a six-year-old living at 24 Sussex Dr. – but the intensity of his drive for victory now and in the next federal election could be a challenge to those priorities.

A new kind of Liberal machine

Wherever he goes, Mr. Trudeau is followed by volunteers who carry clipboards and registration forms to sign up supporters from outside the party. If he speaks to someone in a restaurant or on the street, the workers follow up with an invitation to endorse his campaign.

Mr. Trudeau feels that the approach can open a whole new chapter in Liberal history. “There is no ‘Big Red Machine’ any more,” he says, “and it couldn’t have happened at a better time, because we are in a moment in the lives of our democracies across the world where we do have to renew, we have to think very differently about representative democracy and what it looks like in the 21st century.”

He says that the Internet generation forces him to engage in “old-fashioned politics” – town halls and public meetings – while television, a medium mastered by the Conservative Party, is quickly getting outmoded.

“We’re moving away from TV, which is a broadcast and a one-way medium, into the Internet, which is multi-nodal and about two-way conversations.”

The key is the thousands of names, addresses, birth dates and e-mails being amassed on those clipboards and on the Justin.ca website. For the Liberal Party, “that gives us the bare bones of the rebuilding effort,” he says.

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