As this campaign enters the endurance leg, there are interesting plot turns and the ending is not yet clear. (My better half contends I am hopeless at foreseeing how movies will end, true enough, but both of us are finding this election hard to read).
Stephen Harper's campaign is functioning far, far better in the last couple of weeks, than in the first ten days or so. Fenced-in media jails and micro-scrums have been replaced with airplane bowling and strawberries, with predictably better results in terms of news coverage. Mr. Harper weathered everything his opponents could throw at him in the debates, with poise and discipline. There's upbeat advertising to cut the harsh taste left by the heavy rotation of negative spots. If there's a weakness in the Conservative campaign, it is that most days it's about avoidance of things that could be worse. On days when it is on a positive footing, it often sounds like an understated defence of a lightly appreciated record.
For his part, Michael Ignatieff has become all tenacity and hail fellow, well met - a contrast with the wooden, intellectualizing, un-Canadian style predicted for him. His stump speaking is not only better than expected, but idiosyncratic, maybe even quirky, and all-in-all pretty good. The Liberal campaign is well-run, united and disciplined. The hill to climb by the Liberal Leader is, nonetheless a steep one. Problems 1A and 1B are a healthy economy and a competent incumbent who is clearly determined not to offend voters.
To overcome this, the Liberal campaign needed to shake up the inertia, in three ways:
1. Deliver a crushing, visceral indictment of the Harper government
2. Showcase over and over a striking and appealing alternative
3. Create a sense of who Michael Ignatieff is and why he can be trusted to lead Canada
How has it fared so far?
Mr. Ignatieff has hammered the government on its democratic values. The attack has been vigorous and polished but at the end of the day, it's not evident that respect for democracy will be the ballot question for many voters. Ethical issues are potentially more combustible, but the Liberal Leader has soft-pedaled on those.
The Liberal campaign has tabled a well-thought-out platform, with centrist hockey-mom appeal, and plenty for the left to like too. But the Family Pack seemed almost to vanish, beginning in the English debate. Proposals like the Learning Passport have more potential to be exploited, and I noted the effort by Mr. Ignatieff to profile his policies in his long form interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge on Tuesday.
Finally, Mr. Ignatieff is coming across as a more accessible and personable character than he did before the campaign. However, a little over a month with a disengaged electorate is not a lot of time to get people comfortable with what makes one tick. Mr. Harper has been at it for years, with only partial success.
As things stand today, the math of a Conservative victory is simple, and it's tempting to guess this campaign will end more or less as it began. But the slumping fortunes of the Bloc Québécois combined with vacillating and regionally inconsistent NDP support levels mean the story may hold unexpected endings.
Is the Bloc experiencing its own version of fatigue with long serving incumbents, and if so, where will those voters turn for a fresh voice? Polling is conclusively inconclusive about this, so far.
Will Jack Layton's communications skills combined with the 21st-century NDP Light policies (no more make the rich pay, nationalize the banks rhetoric) create a breakthrough for his party, or will their post-debate bounce fade, with a corresponding strengthening of Liberal support in Ontario and British Columbia? A lot will depend on the performance of Mr. Ignatieff, in the coming days.
And so, with a week and a half to go, plot twists may well develop. The so-called "election about nothing" may in fact be an election about many things. The final page will be a happy ending for at least one leader, and possibly more.