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Canada In Stephen Harper’s Calgary riding, barely a sign of coming election

Mary McGillivray and her husband, Doug, outside their Calgary Heritage home. The Mcgillivrays do not like the way they feel Canadian democracy is changing.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The rule of thumb in political campaigns, as any candidate will tell you – even when knowing fully well he or she is barking against thunder – is that it basically comes down to one-third leader, one-third party and one-third local candidate.

Here in Calgary Heritage, one of the six new federal ridings granted to Alberta, the local candidate is all three.

That would be Stephen Harper, Conservative candidate, Conservative Leader and, seemingly, a one-man party.

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If there is no curiosity as to who will win the riding – a local Liberal worker places the Conservative Leader's chances at 90 per cent – it is indeed curious how very few Harper signs Calgary Heritage has.

A few hours spent driving down random streets along the southwest corner of the city in mid-September might suggest the race is wide open – but also that voter turnout will be in the single digits. There were precious few signs of any political stripe, and as many, or more, for competitors as for blue Conservative.

Perhaps it is because the Calgary area has been so profoundly loyal to conservative politicians that the signs of NDP candidate Matt Masters Burgener are black and white, with but a tiny splash of orange. A successful country singer, he does not need to be in Ottawa to find work.

The riding's wealthiest neighbourhoods have virtually no signs at all. It is almost as if there is no Oct. 19 election – or else all the attack ads are working.

Prime ministers tend not to have to campaign much at home. No sitting government leader has crashed since Kim Campbell in 1993. Before her, only William Lyon Mackenzie King and Arthur Meighen lost seats. And no one expects it to happen this time. Besides, the "new" riding is almost exactly the Calgary Southwest riding that gave Mr. Harper three out of every four votes cast last time.

"I think he's doing a pretty good job," says Adam Martin, a city bus driver with a young family, a small bungalow and a Harper sign in the front yard.

Mr. Martin particularly likes his MP's stand on immigration: exercise caution. "If you don't do a good background check of the people you're letting in," he says, "you might be letting in some of the wrong people. I don't know if it's okay to say this or not, but it could be some guys from ISIS, you know."

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Mr. Martin hears the anger, sometimes white-hot, directed toward Mr. Harper, and says it reminds him of when George Bush was president: "Just anger at everything he does no matter what he does.

"I'm not saying [Mr. Harper] is perfect or anything, but he's solid. Steady as she goes is the way to go, I think."

Churchill Drive has had a surprise spawning of red signs in support of Liberal candidate Brendan Miles, who also has steady work (family physician) to fall back on.

"We like to think there's a little chance," says Mary Mcgillivray, who helped put on a neighbourhood get-together with Dr. Miles. "There is a very big call for change, so we have to approach it that we do have a chance. It's not a big chance, but …"

She is particularly annoyed at the constant "not ready" attacks on Liberal leader Justin Trudeau. "A young Stephen Harper made lots of mistakes," she says, "but I think Justin is doing very well. I think he has a lot of life experience. I think growing up in the limelight and losing your brother and your father and all that stuff, I think that's life experience and it is valuable. You learn a lot from those kinds of things, so I think he's ready."

The Mcgillivrays do not like the way they feel Canadian democracy is changing. The Harper government, to them, is top down and paternalistic. And they particularly dislike the adversarial politics that have become the norm in recent years.

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"We're a democracy, you know," Ms. Mcgillivary says. "People are supposed to matter. But it doesn't seem to matter to him."

To her and her husband, it is all about "attitude."

One long-time conservative Albertan – a retired former municipal politician who served on various Conservative executives – agrees completely with the Mcgillivrays, even if he chooses not to go on the record.

"It's attitude," the older man says. "And I do not like it. [Mr. Harper]'s whole thing was the economy. That's what got him elected; that's what got him re-elected.

"As far as I'm concerned, his shelf life is up."

Obviously, it is not so as the Member of Parliament for the new riding of Calgary Heritage. That, surely, is a lock.

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It would naive and foolish, with the three main parties in a virtual tie most days, with the economy suddenly turning slightly in Mr. Harper's favour, to suggest that shelf life is up for Mr. Harper as prime minister. Not with so much time left; not with no riveting issue gaining traction.

It was not a stellar first half for him in this ridiculously long campaign, but it is worth remembering one of the Ten Commandments of Canadian politics as stated by the late Liberal strategist and senator Keith Davey: "A leader is never cooked until people start to laugh at him."

They are not laughing.

They are not cheering much.

But here in Calgary Heritage, they are watching, and seemingly waiting.

Not unlike the country at large.

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