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At the start of a day that could have been disastrous for his Conservatives' re-election prospects, as their party reeled from a horribly tone-deaf response by its immigration minister to the Syrian refugee crisis, Stephen Harper did two things for which he is not usually known.

First, in scrapping a planned Thursday-morning announcement on a different matter to devote an entire event to the unspeakable scale of human suffering overseas, Mr. Harper deviated from his meticulously crafted script. And second, in speaking about his own son while expressing the heartbreak of seeing the photo of 3-year-old Alan Kurdi lying dead on a shore, he showed a flash of actual emotion.

Then, just as quickly, he was back on talking points about the importance of military action against the Islamic State, and the wrongheadedness of opponents who oppose it – a reminder that if nimbleness and empathy prove the most important qualities in this election, the prime minister's office will likely have a new occupant after Oct. 19.

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Conservatives will readily acknowledge there is a cold, calculating nature to the way their leader approaches politics. Many of them understandably take some pride in this. Stubbornly sticking to messages mapped out to appeal to a swath of target voters, uninterested in feeding off the energy of crowds, and worried about winning minds much more than hearts, he has won three straight elections over rivals who were rawer and more improvisational and wanted to be liked much more than he did.

One of the downsides of this approach, though, is that campaigns rarely unfold as expected. It is easy to forget now that Mr. Harper's seeming imperviousness to the 2008 economic crash may have cost him a majority government that year, and that his party was caught off guard by the NDP's sudden 2011 surge before pivoting only in the final days of the campaign.

"He's better as an agenda-setter than as someone who has to play defence on a play he didn't draw up," is how Tim Powers, one of the few Conservative backroom veterans willing to attach his name to such insights, aptly puts it.

Others, speaking on background, warned well before this campaign started that their party may now be even less adaptable than previously. Strategists who were a little more suited to switching things up on the fly – among them Nigel Wright, who, notwithstanding the controversy in which he subsequently became immersed, played an under-recognized role in the Conservative war room in the last election – are no longer in the picture. If anything, Mr. Harper might now be free-wheeling compared with the people around him. Conservative sources familiar with their party's inner workings say that, more his own strategist than ever, Mr. Harper was likely the one who spearheaded the course correction on Thursday, as his party was not only planning to send him out to talk about something other than the refugee crisis, but also to dispatch Jason Kenney for what would have been a bizarrely timed announcement about making the immigration system more secure.

It was probably Mr. Harper's initiative, too, to let his guard down for a moment by talking about how viewing that photo was enough to "bring tears to your eyes," recalling his own child at that age, his voice breaking a little. But it also would have been his instinct to snap out of it quickly.

That is partly because, ever uninterested in appealing to people who probably will not vote for his party anyway, he is no doubt cognizant that many of his supporters could be put off if he went too soft. On Friday, an Angus Reid poll suggested that while a strong majority of voters believe Canada should take in more refugees, only about four in 10 Conservative supporters feel that way.

It is also just not who he is, at least publicly. Some introverts, such as NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, can be coaxed to start talking more about their families and relating more directly to voters. Mr. Harper is capable of being endearingly human – last year's eulogy for Jim Flaherty was another example – but he has little interest in being our grief counsellor or our buddy. And at this point, it is probably too late for him to pretend otherwise convincingly anyway.

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In past campaigns, his coldness did not prove fatal to his party's prospects. But then, Canada's middling response to a humanitarian crisis – and related concerns about a more rational but less compassionate approach to letting people into the country – were not front and centre.

Nor had he been in office for almost a decade, which is enough time for fatigue with any leader's persona to set in. Conservatives snickered at Justin Trudeau's pledge last month to grow the country's economy "from the heart out." But the Liberal Leader was trying, however clumsily, to get at the idea that Canadians are ready for something a little less dispassionate. If that is true, Mr. Harper's moment of warmth this week will not be enough.

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