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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff walks past a painting as he arrives for a news conference in Vancouver on Sept. 4, 2009. (DARRYL DYCK)
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff walks past a painting as he arrives for a news conference in Vancouver on Sept. 4, 2009. (DARRYL DYCK)

Strategists panel

Hunting Liberals as a pack Add to ...

Greg Lyle (former chief of staff for Manitoba premier Gary Filmon, and managing director of the Innovative Research Group): The fate of the Liberal Party of Canada is to enjoy the greatest opportunity for growth among all the four major parties at the expense of fighting a three-front war. For Chrétien this equation worked well. For Dion it was disaster. For Ignatieff, only time will tell.

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Right now in Quebec, the Bloc's primary opponent is the surging Liberals while they manage a mop-up operation against the Conservatives in the Quebec City region. The NDP also pull primarily from the Liberals. They need to keep an eye on the Greens generally and the Tories in specific rural and Western seats, but their main opportunity for growth comes from stealing Liberal votes.

Finally, the Conservatives also draw their second-choice support overwhelmingly from the Liberals. Bloc switchers are not a major opportunity. In Quebec, right-wing nationalists of the Union National ilk are a dying breed. Most sovereigntists are left-leaning and green. Federalists are more diverse but most economic conservatives are federalist. In the rest of Canada, there are a few NDP Conservative switchers in some rural and B.C. seats, but the bulk of Tory second choices come from the Liberals.

If the law of the jungle is eat or be eaten, the law of politics is define of be defined. Canadians know what they think of the various parties and they've had the other three main leaders to kick around for several elections. The only unknown variable is Michael Ignatieff.

The first priority for all three of the opposition parties is to define Ignatieff. While he appeared to start strong as a leader, he has been seen to stumble recently. More importantly, he has not clearly established the answer to two critical questions: Why do the Tories need to be defeated now? Why does Michael Ignatieff want to be Prime Minister?

Job No. 1 for his opponents is to define Ignatieff by answering those two questions on his behalf before the Liberals can answer them.

The Bloc shift on the home-renovation tax break vote is a good example of one of the Liberals' opponents moving quickly to take advantage of an opportunity. The Liberals are now negatively positioned on why they want the election now and the issue can be used as a failed test of Ignatieff's character, as a proof point that he puts his personal interest above the common interest.

This is the pattern the Liberal opponents must sustain. Keep the Liberals on the defensive and use every opportunity they have to define Ignatieff negatively.

Since the Liberals are the main threat and the main opportunity for all three of their competitors, the bottom line is that if any of their opponents hurt the Liberals, all three opponents potentially gain.

Scott Reid (former communications director for Paul Martin, and principal with the speechwriting company Feschuk-Reid): Michael Ignatieff thought things through carefully this summer and concluded that he had no stomach for a phony war. So he opted to start a real one.

In so doing, he has left his political opponents with little room to deal-make their way around a fall election. The Conservatives have previously branded any alliance with the Bloc as tantamount to high treason and they openly dismiss Jack Layton as an extortionist. The Bloc realize Stephen Harper has deemed them radioactive and the NDP understand their many moral crusades against the Liberals make it practically impossible for them to extend Harper's political life - even if an empty bank account makes them fear a campaign.

So what should the Conservatives, Bloc and NDP do - knowing that an election is likely unstoppable? Simple. They should position themselves as well as possible for the writ period that will surely soon arrive. Here are some priorities that should be pursued.

Conservatives: The truth is Stephen Harper is far from convinced that an election is contrary to his interests. But he knows that betraying his secret enthusiasm would be a grave error. Not just because it would put him at odds with the prevailing public view. But because it would rob him of the ability to tee off on his Liberal opponent. Instead, expect him to take three steps to enhance his existing advantages. First, he will make Michael Ignatieff pay an even steeper price for pressing this campaign upon the public. Forget the discomfort of making the Liberals vote against the home-renovation tax credit. Watch for Harper to suddenly offer Ignatieff a deal on EI. He'll publicly propose a set of reforms that, while not quite what the Liberals sought, are indisputably seen as a compromise. Of course, he would make this gesture knowing that Ignatieff has crossed the political point of no return and will be forced to reject any offer. In other words, all gain and no risk for the Conservative Prime Minister. Second, he will run pre-writ ads in Quebec designed to take the shine off Michael Ignatieff. Robbed of the new leader's novelty appeal, the Liberal uptick in Quebec has shown signs of slowing recently. Harper will do his best to intensify that trend. Finally, he will continue to make big dollar infrastructure announcements - identifying his efforts with the noble task of revitalizing economic growth and creating new jobs. Don't be surprised if they just happen to all occur in swing ridings.

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