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Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
Editorial cartoon by Anthony Jenkins (Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Coalition smokescreen could hamper Harper's effort Add to ...

After a rocky start, the Liberal campaign caught a break and stabilized over the weekend. The break is that "coalition" has become a double-edged sword for Stephen Harper.

Mr. Harper's desire for a majority has been evident for some time, and in terms of how to get it, he was faced with two choices. He could have decided not to talk about it much and hope that it transpired by default: a lot of voters simply unbothered by his government and/or unimpressed enough with his opponents. But this approach was road tested in the last campaign, and failed.

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His second option was to campaign overtly for a majority, which would require convincing hesitant voters that they need to put aside their doubts. This is the choice he has made.

In pursuing this approach, he faces a risk that the harder he pushes for a majority, the more resistant voters might be, resulting in a coalescence around the Liberals. To overcome that problem, he makes the case that unless he wins a majority of the seats, there would be no Conservative government because his opponents would conspire to undermine the will of the people.

With Saturday's effort by Michael Ignatieff to clear up any ambiguity in his position on this issue, combined with the disclosures by Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe that Mr. Harper's allergy to coalitions is not something he was born with, the Conservative Leader is now faced with a difficult choice.

To continue hammering away at this theme is to risk a voter backlash. Either because people tire of the allegation he is making, which he can't really can't prove, and thus is nothing more than saying Mr. Ignatieff is a liar. Or because talking about it more means people hear more about the 2004 discussion he had with Messrs. Layton and Duceppe and come to believe the PM is a hypocrite.

As the Tory Leader and his strategists think through the choice they are now faced with, they have to ask themselves what are voters more likely to believe: that Mr. Ignatieff is lying and would do exactly what he vowed on Saturday that he wouldn't do, or that Mr. Harper is scare mongering for partisan advantage, and maybe a hypocrite to boot? Conservative base voters will probably buy that Mr. Ignatieff is lying. But many accessible voters, and many soft voters in Quebec, could view it differently.

That's why, for the Conservatives, the time is right to step away from the coalition question, at least for now. They enjoy a healthy lead in the polls, and there are plenty of other things they can talk about that will seem more relevant to mainstream voters.

For the Liberals, that Saturday and Sunday felt better than Friday probably shouldn't be mistaken for momentum in their favour. Their leader's effectiveness as a communicator is still measured by low standards: he's better than Stéphane Dion, better than he was last year, etc. Unscripted comments by campaigning leaders are great, when what is said is clear and compelling. Unscripted and meandering comments are a recipe for electoral disaster, especially against this disciplined Conservative Party.

Despite the gap in the polls, attachment to the Conservatives is somewhat soft, meaning the Liberals have a chance of success in this election, but it is a slight chance, and would require much clearer, edgier, and stronger campaign thematics, based on my experience.

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