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In the latest polls, voter support for the NDP is holding firm. And Thomas Mulcair’s personal appeal is finally nuding up. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
In the latest polls, voter support for the NDP is holding firm. And Thomas Mulcair’s personal appeal is finally nuding up. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s next task: Win over the country Add to ...

“We build large cars,” he points out. “Our cars are not built for the European market.” But European cars are built for North America, and “will likely double their exports to Canada. And all that does is eat more and more into the Canadian auto industry. It’s just another nail” in the coffin.

Mr. Dias is a big fan of Mr. Mulcair, saying that “he knows that his relationship with labour is important ... He really understands that we deliver.” But if the NDP supports CETA, “I think it will hurt how we perceive them.”

Even the delay may prove costly. The Conservatives see the agreement as their most important economic initiative and badly want to campaign as the only party to trust with the economy. They are already suggesting the NDP is opposed – if Thomas Mulcair can’t make up his mind, they will do it for him.

Planning on votes

Even if he solves his CETA dilemma, Mr. Mulcair still has to persuade voters that the heirs to Ontario’s Bob Rae disaster can actually form a credible government.

He is not without assets. When Ipsos Reid polls voters on which party shares their values, the New Democrats rule on anything social while the Conservatives dominate on economic affairs. “The NDP owns the compassion side of the agenda, the Tories own the management side, and the Liberals own nothing,” observes pollster Darrell Bricker.

But the clock is ticking. The Party Power Index compiled by Nanos takes into account both a leader’s performance and his party’s popularity, and last fall had Mr. Mulcair gaining ground at the expense of both Mr. Harper and Mr. Trudeau.

This week’s index has the NDP at 49.3, a half-point behind the Conservatives, while the Liberals, although falling, are still well ahead at 56.2. Mr. Fingerhut says that most people who would never support the Conservatives still have it in their political DNA to vote Liberal: “That’s the battle Mulcair has to face. He can’t be as good as Trudeau or even a little bit better than Trudeau. He’s going to have to be a whole lot better, to defeat him.”

But this time, the New Democrats are the Official Opposition, they still enjoy a credible level of popular support – and they’re making changes as they prepare for the election. The party has already updated both its fundraising mechanism, this week reporting that December donations reached $800,000 (a monthly record but still a far cry from the $2-millon collected by both main rivals) and its voter-identification efforts.

Now, to raise his profile, its leader is embarking on a cross-country series of community talks and kitchen-table conversations with working families, stressing two major themes. The first will be “affordability,” as the party tries to match the Conservative focus on consumer issues by targeting bank-machine fees, credit-card interest rates, electronic billing charges and other ways customers give and banks receive.

The second theme will be energy policy. Mr. Mulcair concedes that natural resources are “the motor of the Canadian economy,” as he declared in a speech last month, but he will accuse the Tories of squandering export opportunities through shoddy and short-circuited environmental reviews, dooming proposed pipelines to years of court challenges and leaving Canada with an international reputation for dirty oil and indifference to climate change.

The goal, senior NDP strategists say, is to depict Mr. Harper as the leader of a tired and corrupt administration interested only in helping his big-business friends, and Mr. Trudeau as a vacuous lightweight with few convictions and fewer policies.

Against them, Mr. Mulcair will be portrayed as an experienced leader who understands the struggles of working families and has specific proposals to help them. He and his message also will be promoted in local radio and newspaper advertising, but there will no attack ads and, thus far, no television ad campaign this year.

One thing that won’t change: the beard. Canadians don’t like them on politicians – the last prime minister elected with a beard was Alexander Mackenzie in 1873. But Mr. Mulcair has had his since he was 18, and not even his wife has been able to persuade him to give it up.

There are already signs that his personal profile is starting to rise. “In airports,” he says, “I used to get, ‘Oh, that’s the NDP guy.’ Now I get systematically, ‘Oh, that’s Mr. Mulcair.’ And, by the way, it’s no longer ‘Mr. Muhclair’ or ‘Mr. Mulclair.’ ”

Insiders also cite an Ekos poll showing Canadians now more willing to have a drink with him (24 per cent) than with the Prime Minister (22).

If only a whopping 44 per cent of them wouldn’t prefer to bend an elbow with Justin Trudeau.

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