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The Globe and Mail

Trudeau compiling war chest to fight Tory attack ads

Justin Trudeau continued his campaign to become the Leader of the Federal Liberal Party at a function in Vaughan on Feb. 28, 2013. A group of mostly Italian heritage filled the main room at the Supreme Banquet Hall, and after eating pizza, and soup, they sat and stood around a raised circular stage to listen to Trudeau deliver his speech.(Peter Power/ The Globe and Mail)

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Justin Trudeau is building a $1-million war chest for the Liberal Party that he will use to fight off attacks expected from the Harper Tories if he wins the leadership.

Mr. Trudeau, the front-running candidate, is proving to be a fundraising machine compared to his predecessors, Michael Ignatieff and Stéphane Dion, who struggled to raise money for the party.

Unlike the Tories, who press hot-button issues such as gun control and public funding of the CBC to garner donations, Mr. Trudeau is successful without even needing an issue.

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Trudeau campaign sources say their candidate will pay off about $1.3-million in campaign expenses and could have nearly $1-million to put into party coffers when the leadership race ends next month.

The spending limit for the campaign is $950,000, but that does not include items such as the $75,000 entry fee, candidate travel and fundraising costs.

Events featuring Mr. Trudeau, including a private cocktail party for 100 people in Halifax earlier this week that raised about $100,000, are proving very lucrative.

And there are still several weeks – and more Trudeau fundraisers – to go before the new Liberal leader is announced in Ottawa on April 14. The final debate is on Saturday in Montreal.

The full financial details of each of the six campaigns will come out on Monday when the candidates start filing the first of four weekly returns with Elections Canada.

Kate Monfette, a spokeswoman for the Trudeau campaign, will not say how much has been raised so far or what total spending will be. "And in terms of how much we hope to pass to the party in the end, the answer is as much as possible," she said.

The Liberals have suffered in the fundraising game from reforms to political financing. The changes, which reduced the amount corporations and unions can donate to political parties and eliminated a government subsidy, hit them hard.

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The Tories and their predecessor, the Reform Party, prefer smaller donations from individuals rather than large corporate contributions, and regularly pull in millions of dollars between elections, which they have used effectively on ads to attack their rivals.

According to Elections Canada, the Conservatives raised $17-million last year compared to $9-million for the Liberals. In 2011 – the most recent election year – the Tories raised nearly $23-million while the Liberals managed a total of $10.3-million.

Previous Liberal leaders suffered the slings and arrows of pre-writ Tory attacks, but didn't have the money to fight back. In 2007 and 2008, the Tories defined Mr. Dion as a weak leader whose policies would take the country back to the past. Then they attacked his replacement, Mr. Ignatieff, in the infamous "Just Visiting" ads, as an opportunist who returned to Canada after 30 years abroad to gain power.

At the Halifax event on Tuesday night, a guest asked Mr. Trudeau how he would fight Tory attacks. He noted that fundraising events, such as the one he was attending, would help, adding that Liberals "need to tell our story own story rather than have negative ads define us," according to a source.

Later that night as he flew back to Ottawa, a passenger on his flight sent him a note asking if he thought he could "really beat Harper." Mr. Trudeau invoked his father's famous line and replied, "Mike, Just watch me."

The Trudeau fundraising is a much-needed boost for the Liberal Party, which has been embarrassed by the relatively low number of party members and supporters who have registered to vote for the new leader. The party announced earlier this month that 300,000 people had signed up to support a candidate or have a say in the process, but candidates and the party have failed to translate that strong showing to the second stage – registering those supporters and members to vote.

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Despite a week's extension, about 40 per cent of the potential voters have signed up, suggesting that many of the people who joined the Trudeau campaign, for example, have a low level of engagement with the party.

Conservative Senator Doug Finley, one of the architects of the Harper election successes who was behind many of the attack ads, doesn't believe Mr. Trudeau poses a threat to the Tories. "The key to fundraising on a consistent, growing basis is the established donor relationship constantly driven and fed by a carefully managed network of systems and devices," he told The Globe. "It strikes me … that the Liberal Party has gone backwards in this respect."

He says the excess money raised by Mr. Trudeau "might be better used to build a membership/fundraising process that will survive beyond the next coronation."

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