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Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks about the upcoming session of Parliament during a speech to supporters, Monday, September 15, 2014 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The Canadian Press

He talked about Islamic State in Iraq, Vladimir Putin and the Ukraine, crime in Canada, and tax cuts on the way. But Stephen Harper had one main message: I'm the prime minister. Accept no substitute.

The issues themselves were mustered to highlight his experience as a leader, and the portrait of a dangerous and risky world was designed to tell you why you need it. It's a tune that's worked twice, in 2008 and 2011, and now, behind Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in the polls, he's turning it up louder.

Mr. Harper's speech yesterday at Ottawa's convention centre, on the day Parliament resumed sitting was supposed to be about his fall agenda. What he made clear is that the agenda is campaigning for re-election – and to that end, he hinted at moving up the announcement of tax cuts to this fall, in an economic statement.

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The overall frame he set out for next year's election was clear: the classic incumbent's case for voters to stay the course with steady leadership, and eschew the risky opponents who argue it's time for a change.

As he wound his way through dangers from terrorists abroad and criminals at home – and especially from those leaders of other parties who would waste hard-won budget surpluses – Mr. Harper delivered a paean to strong leadership in times of risk and uncertainty. He was, of course, speaking about himself.

He talked a lot about foreign policy, for example, not because differences in those policies will really move a lot of voters, but because it offers a chance to contrast an experienced incumbent with untried rivals.

For years, he said, "we were told" to ignore the erosion of rights in Vladimir Putin's Russia, because the Cold War was over. "Finally," Mr. Harper said, "the world is waking up." In other words, he'd seen the danger that others missed.

He pledged staunch support for Ukraine, opposition to Islamic State and ridiculed those who speak of its "root causes" as social "exclusion" – a knock at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who, after the Boston Marathon bombings, said that the root causes should be looked into, to look at whether the bombers felt excluded.

If you want to take issue with it, you could note that Mr. Harper's government is supposed to be looking into the root causes of home-grown Canadian extremism, or that his policies on Russia haven't been much different, over the past nine years, from most other western nations. But that's beside his point about leadership, of course. He was telling Canadians he sees the dangers clearly, while his opponents have a muddied view. Being prime minister helps him reinforce the point: he's the one seen on the world stage, speaking forcefully about global crises.

There are other dangers closer to home that he highlighted, like crime, and there Mr. Harper promised more of the same tough-on-crime policies. But the big sell is leadership, and what it means to the economy.

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He sold his government as one that steered the economy through global recession, and nursed the public finances back to health. And he described the danger embodied by his opponents: that they'll blow the hard-won surpluses, and decide to "raise taxes, or accumulate more debt, to funnel big envelopes of cash to interest groups."

It is a message that Mr. Harper's government plans to sell relentlessly. Last week they outlined a credit for small business on EI premiums. Mr. Harper said his government's fall economic update, usually an update on the public finances, will unveil new measures, presumably the tax cuts he promised in his speech.

It will be repeated because the real clincher for the stranger danger message that Mr. Harper aims at his challengers: that he'd put money in your wallet, and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Mr. Trudeau would take it away.

But a lot now rides on how Canadians see Mr. Harper's economic leadership a year from now. The job market has been soft in central Canada and those risks Mr. Harper sees already have a lot of people feeling vulnerable. His re-election strategy rests on convincing Canadians he alone can steer them past that, so they should resist the temptation for change.

The economy is what matters most to Canadians, and Mr. Harper will keep repeating the message that he's proven the safe manager. In next year's election, he'll face two rookies, and Mr. Trudeau, especially, lacks experience. But Mr. Harper will have been in power almost a decade, and he's right to think the election will be about him.

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