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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford pose for a photo opportunity at Toronto Police Services 43 Division in suburban Toronto on July 24, 2012.MOE DOIRON/The Globe and Mail

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Stephen Harper and Rob Ford, politicians struggling with very different scandals, face a similar problem: It's become harder to galvanize supporters by railing against the elite.

Both are labouring to preserve this, their most potent political weapon. Toronto's mayor could be brought down outright. The Prime Minister has entered a new period in which questions about his motivations, now that they've been raised even among his "base," threaten to corrode his ability to play the outsider.

Mr. Harper, arguably more than Mr. Ford, has used this tool to turn minority support into power. The "base" that the Tories are so obsessive about donates  money, works on elections and turns out to vote. The outsider-against-elites appeal hardens support, making Mr. Harper resistant to partisan attacks, everyday screw-ups, even some scandals. Those folks don't always believe Mr. Harper is telling the whole truth, or playing nice – but they believe he's fighting on their side, against a smug, protected elite.

You could hear the emphasis Mr. Harper gave to this aspect of his brand in the speech delivered Friday night to the Conservative Party convention. "Ours is not the party of entitlement, not guided by power and privilege," he told delegates. He said that he and his wife, Laureen, "didn't go to Ottawa to join private clubs or become part of some elite." That image matters.

That's why this Senate scandal is so dangerous to him. It's not just that (now former) Tory senators like Mike Duffy allegedly racked up whopping expense claims they didn't deserve, but that Mr. Harper's PMO circled to protect them – and the party – writing cheques and media lines. Mr. Harper's defence that it was only former chief of staff Nigel Wright penning a $90,000 cheque, bad enough, crumbled into a wider circle of aides. It appears Mr. Harper's people weren't fighting against the privileges in a private club, they were fighting on the side of the elite, for themselves.

Of course, Mr. Harper doesn't have to worry about a video, or whatever he was smoking. Mr. Ford's problems smell more like doom. Polls conflict on whether Mr. Harper's party's support has suffered much. But they agree that he's suffered a blow to his credibility, even among supporters. And once a leader's motivation is doubted, time, the years spent in power in Ottawa, make it harder to re-burnish an elite-busting brand.

Rob Ford responded to the latest chapter in his scandal with an act of contrition, as far as it goes. He said that he he takes responsibility for his mistakes, and will make changes to his life – without specifying exactly what his mistakes were.

Nonetheless, on his Sunday radio show, he made his survival appeal plain when he said he's "going to continue fighting for the little guy, fighting for taxpayers," and that he will work with those who want to work with him, but not with those "who want to play politics." He'll throw himself of the mercy of Ford Nation, hoping they'll forgive his personal errors and believe his promise that, as mayor, he'll fight for them and against the rest. Many won't believe all he says, but some will believe he's still fighting on their side.

Acts of contrition are not for Stephen Harper. It's not his style, and it's not what he's learned. He watched Jean Chrétien avoid them, and Paul Martin embrace them. Mr. Chrétien rode out the "billion-dollar boondoggle," Shawinigate, and the first burst of the sponsorship scandal. It blew up in Mr. Martin's face.

But the truth is Mr. Chrétien's little-guy image had worn. Mr. Martin wasn't undone just by an auditor's report or even the Gomery Commission; the Liberals sped up an erosion of credibility until even many party supporters saw hypocrisy after years in power. Voters decided against them on a key motivation question: "Are they driven by my interests, or theirs?"

Mr. Harper won't be undone by this scandal, though it will fizzle and pop. He's signalled what he'll do: be mad as hell and pledge to take action, pushing suspensions of senators and changes for the Red Chamber. He gave convention delegates, the core of the core, what they wanted: a feisty leader who pledged to fight for them. He'll move on, and play to his strengths.

But a key strength has been weakened. Time makes it harder to repair. It's not as easy to rail against elites after more than seven years in power, after you've named scads of senators, Supreme Court justices and senior bureaucrats. Some supporters have doubted his motivation once, it's easier to question next time, and harder for Mr. Harper to fight wear and tear on his image as an outsider fighting Ottawa elites.

Campbell Clark is a columnist in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.