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Awish Aslam, a second year political science student a the University of Western Ontario was removed from a Conservative party rally in London on Sunday. (Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail/Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail)
Awish Aslam, a second year political science student a the University of Western Ontario was removed from a Conservative party rally in London on Sunday. (Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail/Geoff Robins/The Globe and Mail)

The Bubble

Conservative tactics keep campaign off Main Street, on script Add to ...

Stephen Harper's tightly controlled campaign to win a majority government is a classic front-runner strategy: Protect the leader and you protect the lead.

But the lengths to which the Conservative election machine is going to cocoon Mr. Harper from risk are pushing the Tory tactics into the spotlight.

A handful of incidents in which party operatives have asked people to leave rallies - based on checks of Facebook pages and bumper stickers - have fuelled opposition criticism that Mr. Harper is campaigning in an overprotected bubble defended by partisans. The Tories play down the incidents as aberrations, and argue that Canadian voters care little about such "process" stories.

Pollsters suggest the Tories are right for now. They say such incidents won't hurt Mr. Harper unless they continue.

There is no question Conservatives are closely controlling access to their leader. Those attending Mr. Harper's rallies must pre-register and then produce identification at the door. Mr. Harper is not doing any door-knocking or main-streeting, where he might meet voters who don't support him. National media travelling with Mr. Harper on the tour are limited to asking him roughly four questions each morning, with a fifth allocated for a local reporter in whatever city or town he's visiting.

But the campaign incident that drew the most attention occurred at a Harper rally in London, Ont. on April 3. Awish Aslam, a 19-year-old University of Western Ontario student, said she and a fellow student had registered to attend the event with the help of her friend's father, a card-carrying Conservative. But 30 minutes after it began, an official asked her and her friend to accompany him outside.

"He said, 'We know you guys have ties to the Liberal Party through Facebook and you're not welcome here,'" Ms. Aslam said. "Then he just ripped the blue Conservative tags from our chests and tore them up."

Ms. Aslam said she is not a Liberal Party member, but she has a Facebook photo of her and Michael Ignatieff taken when she attended a Liberal rally in London a week earlier. "Honestly, it's bit stalker-ish and a huge turnoff for voting Conservative," Ms. Aslam said of the Tories' scanning her Facebook page.

A second-year political science student, Ms. Aslam said her goal has been to attend Liberal, Conservative and NDP rallies in London and study their election platforms. She's "liked" - a Facebook term for expressing an interest in something - all of the parties' Facebook pages.

"Considering all that we hear about student and youth voter apathy, you would think they [the Conservatives]would be glad to hear someone is engaging in the news and trying to listen to them," she said.

Dimitri Soudas, the chief spokesman for Mr. Harper on the Tory campaign, has apologized for the incident through the media and asked that Ms. Aslam contact him. He later told media on the Harper tour that he was "not aware of such things" when asked if Tories are combing through registered attendees' Facebook pages and backgrounds.

The case of Ms. Aslam isn't the only example. Organizers of the same Harper rally in London reportedly asked Ali Aref Hamadi to leave the Four Points Sheraton because he had an NDP bumper sticker on his vehicle that read: "Don't blame me, I voted NDP."

On Monday, in Guelph, Ont., University of Guelph students were reportedly asked to leave a Harper rally after participating in a demonstration outside to encourage youth voting.

On Tuesday, Mr. Harper sidestepped questions on why people are being expelled from his campaign events, saying he leaves the operations of rallies to Conservative Party workers. "The staff runs our campaigns and I can't comment on individual matters like that," he said.

Speaking during a campaign stop in Central Quebec, the Conservative Leader boasted that the Tories are drawing bigger crowds than all their rivals put together. "I think we get more people coming out to our events … than all the other parties combined," he said - a statement other parties said was demonstrably false.

Pollster Nik Nanos said the string of expulsion incidents are unlikely to hurt the Conservative campaign, unless they keep happening.

"This is probably the result of a few overzealous officials in local ridings who take things too far," Mr. Nanos said. "And the fact that the Prime Minister's director of communications apologized very quickly will probably help the Conservatives manage this issue."

Still, the incidents reflect a "narrative of control" which surrounds the Harper campaign, he said.

"During election time, Canadians have a certain expectation that politicians are available to public questions and open to interaction," he said. "And unfortunately, for young Canadians who are politically engaged, this feeds a broader perspective that they have of all their politicians … that they are not willing to engage with them."

The Liberals and New Democrats, running second and third, respectively, in the polls outside Quebec, are far more inclined to take risks. Neither party requires rally attendees to pre-register, and neither conducts background checks on the list.

Mr. Ignatieff often talks about his Big Red Tent - a simplistic metaphor to emphasize that everyone is welcome in his party and at his events. On Tuesday, the Liberal Leader accused the Harper Tories of being "un-Canadian" for throwing the two young women out of the London rally.

"I just think when you get into a situation where people can't come to a public meeting in Canada and get thrown out by … two heavies because they have a Facebook friend from another party, you're in a bad place. You're in a very bad place. You're in an un-Canadian place," said Mr. Ignatieff.

The Liberals allow anyone into their rallies. In fact, the Liberal Leader noted that they "robo-call" in communities where a rally is to be held. This is the first election in which the Liberals have done this.

The NDP even broadcasts the location of its rallies by Twitter. "We have tweeted our events, put them on Facebook, done voice-mail broadcasts, e-mail blasts and even put ads in local papers," NDP spokesman George Soule said.

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