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The state of the federal contenders Add to ...

Anything can happen in politics. But the prudent assumption is that there will be a federal election in the spring of 2011, after Prime Minister Stephen Harper engineers the defeat of his own government over his next budget. So that means we are at around E-120 or so (roughly that many days from the next vote). How are the contenders looking these days?

A plurality of Canadians (in the range of 35 per cent, judging from most recent public-domain polls) would like to see Prime Minister Harper re-elected. The next largest section of the electorate (about 30 per cent or so) would like to see Jack Layton as our next PM. And something like 20 to 25 per cent believe Michael Ignatieff is up to the job, with the balance of the electorate demurring. To make things a little more interesting, Mr. Harper's party vote roughly accords with his leadership numbers. Mr. Layton leads his party by a substantial margin. Mr. Ignatieff trails his party by about a similar amount. Thus, the NDP and Liberal leadership and party votes roughly reverse-mirror each other.

What are Mr. Harper's strengths? Canadians are getting used to him in the job. They note that (contrary to what they were told) Mr. Harper has not unloaded any troop carriers on their lawns. And Canadians may be slowly warming to his stolid personality, engaging family, and occasional sorties as a hockey fan and rock star. Also - possibly, slowly - Canadians are beginning to detect a bit of bench strength in this government. A cadre of competent ministers (whatever one may think of the agendas they are pursuing) are beginning to add value to the Conservative government's brand. Chuck Stahl, James Moore, Jim Flaherty and Jason Kenny come to mind.

What are Mr. Harper's weaknesses? After four years in office, this government has still not persuaded Canadians outside of its political base that it is pursuing an agenda that lines up with their common sense or their values. Most Canadians know that neo-con fiscal policy (featuring massive spending on both tax expenditures and programs, financed by borrowing) does not add up. Most Canadians know that laisser-faire deregulation does not bring lasting prosperity that is widely shared (see Ireland). Most Canadians know that dumb-on-crime justice policy leads to more crime. Most Canadians support public pensions and public health care. This government does not. And most Canadians care about Canada's good name in the world. This government has not been a good steward of that good name.

People start to make up their minds about an election by first thinking about the government. Do I want these people in my living room for the next four years, or not? Given the strengths and weaknesses set out above, only about a third of the electorate has so far concluded they want Mr. Harper and his team in their living room for the next four years - fundamentally unchanged from the day this government was elected. This is problem the Conservatives are working diligently to cure. But to succeed, they need to distract a winning plurality of Canadians from fundamental concerns about their approach. That is going to be a tall order - and is the opportunity that lies before the opposition.

What are Mr. Layton's strengths? Clearly, as set out in many public-domain opinions polls, Canadians genuinely like Mr. Layton and appreciate his open, collaborative and sunny commitment to getting some positive things done. Mr. Layton's bout with illness has caused Canadians to take a second look at him, to his benefit. And Mr. Layton's extended experience with the balance of power in Parliament has matured him as a politician and a statesman in the eyes of the public. He is no longer prone to over-the-top statements rooted in the absolute necessity, early in his term, to be visible on the federal stage. Instead, Mr. Layton is an increasingly thoughtful and substantive contributor to the national debate - and has proved to be right on many issues. Canadians are responding by finding it increasingly easy to imagine him as prime Mminister, a journey they have also made with Mr. Harper. Interestingly, in particular, Mr. Layton has developed substantial appeal among soft Liberals, of whom there are a generous supply these days.

What are Mr. Layton's weaknesses? Canadians remain to be convinced that his agenda hangs together or that his party can win. Mr. Layton can cure the first problem by articulating a clear, coherent and responsible plan - including, in compelling terms, when people are paying attention to the details at election time. Mr. Layton can cure his second problem - perhaps - by speaking directly and credibly to how modern multi-party Parliaments can be made to work for Canadians. And by having a healthy dose of that essential ingredient in all winning campaigns, continuing luck in his opponents.

What are Mr. Ignatieff's strengths? What Mr. Ignatieff has going for him is the residual power of the Liberal brand. The reflex of Canadians, when they don't like the blue team, to troop to the polls and to vote for the red team, or vice-versa. In other words, Mr. Ignatieff's most compelling asset is a tactical voting argument, similar to the one George Smitherman tried to use to beat back Rob Ford in the recent Toronto municipal election. "If you don't like Mr. Harper, you have no choice, no option, you must vote for me".

This Liberal entitlement argument was quite powerful in Ontario in the 1990s in the hands of an able politician like Jean Chrétien. It has proved progressively more ineffective in the hands of progressively less effective politicians (Paul Martin, then Stéphane Dion, and now Mr. Ignatieff) once challenged, as both the Conservatives and New Democrats have learned to do over the course of the 1990s and in more recent election cycles. Canadians don't like to be told that a party is entitled to their votes. They don't like to be told they don't have any choice. And they don't like be told they have to do things. Mr. Smitherman learned this. So did Mr. Martin and Mr. Dion. Possibly the same lesson awaits Mr. Ignatieff. Or, this time, maybe the trick will work.

What are Mr. Ignatieff's weaknesses? Canadians are in a populist mood, and don't seem to feel much affinity for elite and elitist, archly-amusing, bon-mot academics these days. Listen to Mr. Ignatieff on the radio and his problem is (cue mid-Atlantic BBC/Harvard faculty club accent) rather evident, if we may be permitted to say so, is it not? The television picture doesn't improve matters. Both the Conservatives and the New Democrats are well positioned to exploit Mr. Ignatieff's inability, so far, to build affinity among working and middle class voters. Always remembering that the bones of that Liberal vote are still hanging in there fairly well.

Mr. Ignatieff is also unlucky in the underlying provincial factors that much of federal politics are built on. The Liberal brand is broken (arguably dead) in francophone Quebec. Dalton McGuinty's Liberals in Ontario have a better story to tell, but may also be showing signs of third term syndrome in recessionary times. The Liberal brand is a non-factor in provincial politics across the Prairies. B.C. politics are a Rubik's cube in mid-motion, but it is fair to say that a substantial plurality in British Columbia are not in the mood to give Liberals more to do. Thus, there are very few places in Canada where provincial factors work to Mr. ignatieff's benefit, and many places where they work against him.

So then, there's Quebec and its 75 federal seats, a plurality seemingly likely to go where they've been going for a generation now.

What to make if it all? Mr. Harper will plead for a Conservative majority. Mr. Layton will call for a new and better progressive government. Mr. Ignatieff will remind Canadians of the Liberal Party's entitlements and will ask if it isn't, rather, time to give them their due? Quite conceivably this will all cancel out in the 3D chess game that is federal politics, handing Canada another balanced multi-party Parliament. It is also conceivable that Canadians are going to decide they want to change the channel, and that they are quietly building up an electrical charge to do something surprising.

* * * * *

Among his other virtues, Nathaniel Hawthorne lives on in the Internet for writing that "happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you." This is a hard lesson for people involved in politics, but not bad advice. Especially to those of us driven (by health issues, for example) to possibly be slightly more reflective about things. Christmas, in particular, is not a bad time to sit down quietly for a while. That's my plan. So I'm going to be quiet in this space for the next few weeks unless provoked.

Many thanks to the hundreds of readers who have written over the past year to help me do a better job here. We are an interesting bunch, Globe readers, and a fine one. All the best to you and yours; may happiness alight on you and those you love, butterfly-like; and may we live in surprising times next year.

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