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Last weekend, Stephen Harper interrupted his determined quest to shape Canada's future and turned his attention to the past.

He went to his high-school reunion.

Largely eluding the campaign media, Mr. Harper slipped into his old Ontario stomping grounds in a well-heeled part of Etobicoke to pose for snapshots and swap tales with other members of Richview Collegiate Institute's class of 1978. He had a word or two for almost everyone, and the conversation ranged from the rigours of middle-age dieting to memories of his childhood paper route.

Later, those who rubbed shoulders with him during the class get-together at a pub called The Crooked Cue, or heard him speak to the school's 50th-anniversary dinner the following night ("I guess you're not wondering whatever happened to me," he joked), couldn't get over how different he seemed from the skinny, bespectacled bookworm they all remembered.

"He was not outgoing," recalls former friend and classmate Leonard Biddell. "You very seldom heard him speak out in class. The only time you heard him say anything was when no one else could figure it out."

Or, as one wag noted, had the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada exhibited back then the kind of self-assurance on display at the reunion, he could have got all the girls he wanted.

Today, the only date that means anything to the former Reach For the Top contestant is Oct. 14, when he hopes the electorate will give his Conservative Party its long-awaited majority in Parliament.

But the bewilderment of his old schoolmates mirrors the predicament facing many voters as Mr. Harper enters the home stretch of his third crack at winning that majority: They don't know what to make of the man.

Much has been written of his new image - the sweater vests, tickling the ivories and feeding babies their breakfasts. After 21/2 years in power, he suddenly wants to be seen as an ordinary guy.

But Stephen Harper is no ordinary guy. Figuring out who he really is could be dismissed as irrelevant but for one undeniable fact. Unlike prime ministers elsewhere, Canada's are not first among equals. They are first and foremost - they decide how a government is structured and operates, and what decisions it makes.

The core of any government reflects the personality of the prime minister, because everyone in the system responds to his or her ways of thinking, personality traits, political ambitions and policy preferences. Know the prime minister; know the government.

Not only has Mr. Harper shaped the government to suit himself more than most of his predecessors, part of that shaping has involved controlling information tightly, imposing the strictest discipline on those who work for him and calculating carefully how to present the government's message.

There is respect for the Prime Minister's intelligence, but fear of his retribution runs deep in Ottawa. Almost no one inside the Conservative Party will speak on the record about him. The cloud of silence even descended on his old classmates when it became clear that he would be among them.

However, through dozens of interviews with Mr. Harper's ministers, advisers, civil servants and friends, a portrait emerges of a complicated man who is competitive, disciplined, intense, strategic, partisan and sometimes petty, but willing and able to learn from his mistakes.

Above all, he is possessed of a singular idea: to persuade Canadians to trust the Conservatives enough to dislodge the Liberals as their so-called natural governing party. He wants to erase the notion that one party insider says is "ingrained in the Conservative character … that we fight the fight valiantly, knowing that we will lose and that the forces of history and popular opinion are against us."

SUSSEX DRIVE SANDWICHES

Showing up somewhere unannounced is nothing new for Mr. Harper. More than a year ago, Bill Fitsell was startled to see the RCMP arrive to perform a security sweep of the downtown Ottawa hotel where he and fellow members of the Society for International Hockey Research were meeting.

He was more surprised still when in walked the one member nobody had expected would attend.

"We more or less thought it was a photo op," Mr. Fitsell admits. "But he stayed for an hour and a half."

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