But the government has raised the age of sexual consent, and this year introduced a bill that would expand police powers to monitor the web in search of child pornographers. As well, couples with children will be allowed to split their income for tax purposes, making it easier for one parent to stay home.
Yet part of the Prime Minister's learning curve was realizing that, on issues such as capital punishment, abortion and gay rights, the national debate was settled and Conservatives would reopen it at their political peril. If he has one key asset, it's his ability to learn from his mistakes.
Few are more ruthless in analyzing, even eviscerating, his performance than Stephen Harper himself. No one did a better job of explaining how the Tories lost the 2004 election – in part because he fed fears that the new Conservative Party was too radically right-wing – or realized how much trouble he was in when the opposition parties nearly combined to oust him from power in December, 2008.
No one recognized better that, if the Conservatives focused exclusively on the economy in the last election, he could win a majority government.
The flip side of his personality is Mr. Harper's apparent inability to empathize. Some who know him say he is unable, or unwilling, to understand the values and beliefs of those he disagrees with. And when he believes his opponents are weak, overconfidence can lead him to overreach.
A hint of this hubris surfaced last summer during a barbecue at the home of Toronto Mayor and staunch conservative Rob Ford. Mr. Harper was caught urging provincial Tory leader Tim Hudak, then heading into a fall election, to “complete the hat trick” that would see conservatives in power at Queen's Park as well as City Hall and Ottawa.
The remark drew some flak and, of course, Mr. Hudak came up short – a clear indication, along with this week's result in Alberta, that Mr. Harper's message isn't exactly driving progressive government from the landscape. And now, with the sweeping justice, immigration and fiscal changes made in the past year, the question is whether he is overreaching yet again.
Intimates such as John Weissenberger dispute the notion that Mr. Harper can't see the other side of an argument. The geologist and oil-company manager says detractors underestimate Mr. Harper's ability to appreciate an opponent, citing his respect for late NDP leader Jack Layton.
He also speaks of his old friend's “very strong strategic sense” – a talent that allowed Mr. Harper to see before almost anyone else that a new conservative community of interest could reshape the political map.
Hockey-loving new Canadians
In the depths of the 2009 recession, the hockey-obsessed Prime Minister was talking with the owner of a Canadian franchise in the National Hockey League and asked how ticket sales were holding up in the tough times.
The best news, the owner replied, was that immigrant fans were staying loyal. For them, he said, a ticket was for more than a hockey game – it was a ticket to becoming Canadian.
Immigrant Canadians with money enough and will enough to buy hockey seats in the middle of a recession have become an integral part of a new Conservative coalition.
Mr. Harper realized that in the Civitas speech, predicting that an economic and socially conservative party, with the right leadership and approach, “can draw in new people. Many traditional Liberal voters, especially those from key ethnic and immigrant communities, will be attracted to a party with strong traditional views of values and family.”
Patrick Muttart, the political and marketing consultant who was Mr. Harper's deputy chief of staff from 2006 to 2009, is credited with identifying and targeting key voter segments. He sees the 2011 result as not just an election, but a culmination.
“In charting out a new course, a new national narrative, [the Conservative Party]is starting to move the country along with it,” he says.
The Conservatives always commanded the loyalty of voters in the Prairies and rural Ontario attracted to their core message: low taxes, sound finances, an overriding emphasis on growth leavened with law-and-order values.
Mr. Harper's genius was his ability to sell the same values to what Mr. Muttart calls “the suburbanization of affluence and influence.”
In marketing terms, middle-class suburbanites are “strivers,” upwardly mobile people seeking to own a home in a safe community while they pursue their dreams. They contrast with “creatives,” who place a stronger emphasis on community supports, the environment and international engagement.
More likely to vote Liberal or New Democrat, creatives also tend to live downtown, which is where those parties remain strong, at least in English Canada. But in each election since 2004, suburban strivers have increasingly identified with the Conservatives – and immigrants are more likely to be strivers than creatives.