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Lawrence Martin (Bill Grimshaw)
Lawrence Martin (Bill Grimshaw)

Lawrence Martin

In search of an image: The Liberal Express is now boarding Add to ...

Get ready for Iggy unplugged. The bus tour to beat all bus tours. Or what one of Michael Ignatieff's strategists is calling - we're not kidding - "the biggest summer undertaking of any opposition leader ever!"

Starting next week, the Opposition Leader, tanking in the polls, will climb aboard the Liberal Express (as it's being called) for a summer-long national tour featuring seven or eight events a day: town halls, round tables, barbecues, interviews, picnics, carnivals - everything, in fact, except trampoline acts.

The big tour has big hopes. The planners think it can help serve as an image-changer for Mr. Ignatieff. Instead of playing to the caricature of the just-visiting worldly academic, they want him grubbing it out with ordinary folk, spilling ketchup on his trousers and tossing horseshoes in backyards. What people respond to is honesty and authenticity, they say, so let him make mistakes, let him show a humble and human side.

"We want to contrast him with the über-controlled Harper," says an architect of the tour. "When Harper travels the country, it's so scripted and cocooned, it's like a prisoner transfer."

The Liberal Express will be crammed with MPs and electoral candidates, and such is the advance preparation that organizers expect big campaign-like crowds whooping it up at many of the stops. In the quiet days of summer, when the news channels aren't so satiated, they hope to attract some attention.

What about new policies? Any beef, besides the slabs on the barbecues? Not much, say the Grit spinners. Bus Boy will get into lots of local issue stuff, but the big policy announcements are likely to come in the fall. This tour is more about the person than the policies. It's about trying to give a professor a populist touch. The party has been below 30 per cent in the polls for months, and much of the responsibility lies in the leader's failure to connect.

The tour's a gamble, especially when it's being presold as the biggest thing since buses were invented. The Grits expect that the Conservatives, as organized as they are, will have hecklers at many stops. But they hope this kind of thing will play to the image of Stephen Harper they want to capitalize on. Where he's vulnerable, says the organizer, is that "people think he's a dictator, a nasty piece of work who is power crazy."

If Mr. Ignatieff hauls out the D-word, the tour could get interesting.

The Liberal Express is also designed to give him a stronger Canadian stamp by putting the focus on him in rural towns. One of the goals Mr. Harper set for himself was to take away the flag from the Liberals, which they had owned since Lester Pearson unveiled it in 1965. Mr. Harper has succeeded splendidly. Helped along by the Olympic Games, he's done so by embracing traditional Canadian symbols - the military, the monarchy, the North, the sport of hockey.

A successful leader makes the people feel good about their country. With his patriot pitches, Mr. Harper has done well on that front, leaving the image of the Liberals off in the wilderness.

One identity issue on which Mr. Ignatieff wants to focus is health care. His people think it's a sleeper issue that's now awakening, and they say the Conservatives are taking too much of a hands-off approach in leaving it to the provinces.

An important question the Liberal Leader has to answer is what type of Liberal he is. Is he embedded in the centre or tilted to the left? "There's no question we've got to be the progressive alternative to the Conservatives," says his inner sanctum. "The three words we want to project are compassionate, progressive, responsible."

On the bus tour, the emphasis will be on local media, with Mr. Ignatieff doing dozens of one-on-ones. How the national press will respond to the Liberal Express is a concern, say the architects, "especially when you've got things like Kory Teneycke [Mr. Harper's former spokesman]running Sun Media coverage."

But their attitude is that they'll take their chances. The Conservatives have brought to politics what has been called the "permanent campaign." They never stop. With the Liberal Express, the Grits are entering into permanent campaign mode themselves. They don't necessarily anticipate an early fall election. But they have to be ready.

And they won't be ready unless they change the image of their top guy.

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