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Liberal Leader Bob Rae checks his Blackberry after giving a year-end news conference in Toronto on Dec. 30, 2011. (Frank Gunn/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)
Liberal Leader Bob Rae checks his Blackberry after giving a year-end news conference in Toronto on Dec. 30, 2011. (Frank Gunn/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

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Liberal 'lemmings' headed off cliff with Rae, Tories charge Add to ...

Not wanting Liberals to grab all the headlines in advance of their convention this week, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives are cranking up the rhetoric and their attacks on Interim Leader Bob Rae.

In an email missive to MPs supporters and MPs, Tory strategists accuse the Liberals of acting like “lemmings” and “heading towards the cliff that is the coronation of Bob Rae.”

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There have been reports of late that Mr. Rae will seek the permanent Liberal leadership, although he had seemed to rule it out when he took over the post on an interim basis after the federal election rout last May.

On Global’s The West Block with Tom Clark Sunday, Mr. Rae was asked to rule out running for the permanent leadership. He wouldn’t.

He would only go so far as to say that he “respected” the rules of the national executive when he was appointed interim leader and he will “continue to respect the rules that are established by a national executive.”

However, a new executive could change the rules.

But Tory concern about Mr. Rae taking the permanent reins is premature, given no new leader will be chosen at the policy convention that begins in earnest on Friday and carries through the weekend.

In fact, the Conservative missive is “complete malarky,” according to outgoing party president Alfred Apps.

“The question of the interim leadership is not even on the agenda for the convention,” he said Monday in an email to The Globe, noting the party is electing only eight out of 26 board members at the convention. (Sheila Copps, the former deputy prime minister, and former Ontario Liberal Party president Mike Crawley are the frontrunners to replace Mr. Apps on the national executive.)

But the Conservatives like to waste no time in framing Liberal leaders for Canadians. They successfully did so with Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff. Indeed, labelling the former academic and journalist who lived abroad for 30 years as “just visiting” Canada proved extremely effective in the May election campaign: the Grits were reduced to a 34-seat rump and Mr. Ignatieff returned to the ivory tower.

“First, Sheila Copps lines up to run for the Liberal Party president to help her friend Bob Rae become the permanent leader,” the Tory strategists say in their memo. “... Mike Crawley, high profile candidate for Liberal Party President also came out and said Rae could certainly run for leader.”

The Tories ask the question, however, that many Liberals are likely asking, too. “Why would the Liberals possibly want to be under the leadership of Bob Rae?”

What follows is a laundry list of Mr. Rae’s record – as told by Tories – as former NDP Ontario premier in the 1990s.

“Is it his proven record of higher debt, higher taxes and higher unemployment? Is it his accomplishments such as leaving Ontario families $60-billion in debt after four consecutive deficit budgets? ... Or is it the shattering tax hikes that put 122,00 Ontarians out of work and doubled social assistance rolls?”

Mr. Rae quickly countered the attack. In an email to The Globe, he acknowledged the deficit and debt went up. “But they went up far less than under the current Conservative government,” he said.

In Ontario, spending went from $42-billion to $50-billion over five years. In Ottawa it's increased from $170-billion to $250-billion – “an 18 per cent increase versus a 39 per cent increase,” Mr. Rae noted.

In addition, he said “the demonization of the Rae government is hardly new. It began with major advertising campaigns against progressive labour and human rights legislation and continued under the Harris government, which cancelled housing and transit projects, cut social assistance support to poor families by 22 per cent, laid off thousands of nurses and teachers, and created ‘chaos and crisis’ in both health and education.”

After tearing down Mr. Rae – 20 years after the fact – the Tories say they prefer to elect their leaders in a “truly democratic process.”

But it doesn’t stop there. In another message to the party faithful, Harper strategists talk about the “out of control debt” that Mr. Rae left in Ontario after his “four consecutive deficit budgets.” It also notes how he raised taxes – but neglects to mention Mr. Rae took office when Ontario was in a crippling recession.

“Governing in a recession was a tough challenge, as was facing a constitutional challenge,” the Interim Liberal Leader said. “The Rae government made tough decisions (for example the social contract and ‘Rae days’) that have since been copied by virtually all governments facing recessions and big problems in public finance that want to maintain service to the public and avoid major losses in jobs.”

Watch for the focus on Mr. Rae and the Liberals to continue this week as Grits begin to gather in Ottawa to try to rebuild their party.

Follow on Twitter: @janetaber1

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