Michael Ignatieff was on fire. Speaking at the end of a long day - one town hall, a couple of meet-and-greets, the mandatory Tim Hortons pit stop, and now a barbecue - he implored the party faithful and the merely curious to help him enfold Canadians into his "big, red tent at the centre of Canadian life."
"Stephen Harper wants to take the centre from us and move it 10 degrees to the right," he exhorted the crowd, his baritone voice taut with urgency. "Unless we hold the centre, defend the centre, fight for the centre, renew the centre, this country is going in a direction none of you want, and we gotta stop it."
A woman standing at the back listened impassively. "He's a nice man, and he means well," she said later. "But I don't know if he's a politician."
I do think politics is basically a very traditional activity at root, and it shouldn't change much beyond what John A. and Wilfrid Laurier tried to do. Michael Ignatieff
A little more than one in three Canadian voters is willing to forgive Stephen Harper his weaknesses - the carapace that shields him from emotive contact with others - because they believe he knows how to run the country.
Only a little more than one in four Canadian voters supports Michael Ignatieff because of this strengths - his lifelong devotion to the human right to a better life within a healthier community. The rest don't think he has the political skills needed to manage this fractious land.
This summer you are likely to see Mr. Ignatieff at a community near you as he relentlessly tours the country asking you to change your mind.
It seems such an anachronism. Barack Obama mobilized millions behind his campaign to become U.S. President, and the Tea Partiers mobilized millions to oppose his presidency, through the tools of electronic populism: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Yet here we are on a whistle-stop tour, a form of campaigning as old as John A. MacDonald: Touring the cheese factory, donning the hockey jersey, working the crowd, "handshake by handshake, baby by baby, gathering by gathering, neighbour by neighbour," as Mr. Ignatieff puts it.
"I do think politics is basically a very traditional activity at root, and it shouldn't change much beyond what John A. and Wilfrid Laurier tried to do," Mr. Ignatieff ruminated, as the countryside rolled by. "They understood that politics is about trust. It's about looking someone in the eye and deciding that he or she is worthy of trust."
Except that not many Canadians trust Mr. Ignatieff. "That's why we're on The Liberal Express," he replied.
It's hard to remember how far Mr. Ignatieff has come. An expatriate teacher, author, journalist and renowned public intellectual, he returned to Canada in 2005 probably assuming he would win a senior cabinet seat in Paul Martin's government, before taking over the party itself, maybe round about now.
Instead, Mr. Martin's fall and Stéphane Dion's implosion placed him at the head of a party desperate to reverse a decade of electoral decline.
Mr. Ignatieff's biggest problem is that the Conservatives, for two elections now, have successfully mobilized and delivered the conservative vote. They are far more effective at bringing potential supporters to the polls, through fieldwork and computerized tracking, than the Liberals, whose electoral machinery is rusty and who must compete for the rest of the electorate with the NDP and the Bloc Québécois.
And 40 per cent of voters don't bother to vote at all federally any more.
To win, the Liberals must galvanize younger voters who remain outside political life, retrieve immigrant voters who are drifting to the Conservatives and win back "those Liberals who sat at home the last time and let it happen," Mr. Ignatieff said in Peterborough. "We're not going to let it happen again." So what it really comes down to is recapturing the political centre that got away. Mr. Ignatieff believes it can be won back.
"I believe the country is stubbornly, pragmatically, moderately in the centre. It is not an ideological country," he said in the interview, despite polls that show a general rightward drift in voter attitudes, from lowering taxes to fighting crime.
To win them back, he also needs to become a better politician. That's another purpose of this tour. Every keyboard quarterback has his explanation for why the Liberal leader is not yet connecting with Canadians. Here is one possible reason: Mr. Ignatieff can't escape speaking and acting in the first person singular. "I can't do it without you," he says over and over. That is not the same as "we can do this together."
Advisers say he is being coached on his delivery, and they believe he is improving. So sending the leader out on the road for a summer is also an exercise in helping him communicate better.The Liberals are betting the store on this six-week tour, which began Monday. In Peterborough, when Mr. Ignatieff had the fire in his belly, we remembered why the Liberal Party was so mesmerized by the possibilities of his leadership. At other stops, though, it felt more like a performance, the professor mimicking a preacher. The Liberals have five more weeks to turn Michael Ignatieff into a politician people trust.