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It's got to be full speed ahead for Stephen Harper now, on pipelines, on the economy, on appeals to Canadian pocketbooks, and on the campaign to establish whether he can run another campaign.
Forget the suggestion that it's too risky for this Prime Minister to approve the Northern Gateway pipeline, or that he can back away from full-throated support for shipping oil to Asia. It's far riskier for Mr. Harper to change his stripes now, with so little time.
In theory, there are 21 months to the next election, in October, 2015, but a calculating prime minister like Mr. Harper, weakened by scandal, will know he has only nine or 10 months before he must decide whether he can win, or will make way for a successor. He'll have to spend 2014 playing to his strengths, as a full-bore pro-growth economic manager to know if he's there.
Mr. Harper emerges after the holiday break on Monday with an economics-focused visit in British Columbia. The province is now the centre of pipeline politics, because Mr. Harper's cabinet faces a decision on approving the Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, while another plan to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline to port in Burnaby is now under review.
Don't expect a grand announcement on the Gateway pipeline during this B.C. swing. It's surely too soon only weeks after a Joint Review Panel set more than 200 conditions, so Mr. Harper is likely to rebuff questions by pointing to the process.
But pipelines will be an obvious issue hanging in the air when Mr. Harper goes to the Vancouver Board of Trade for a question-and-answer session. It's the kind of event that's supposed to play to Mr. Harper's selling points – fiscal restraint, low taxes and a pro-trade agenda, including free trade with Europe. Questions about Gateway lingering during his B.C. visit underline that he's made pipelines part of the bundle.
Northern Gateway is controversial, opposed by both the federal NDP and Liberals as environmentally risky. Mr. Harper could dodge a fight by rejecting it. But he's tied himself to this pipeline and oil exports to Asia so heavily, connecting both to economic growth, that it would amount to self-rejection.
He's got to go straight ahead now. Weakened by the Senate scandal, his government is showing its age almost eight years in. Several polls put the Conservatives behind Justin Trudeau's Liberals, and below 30 per cent – a losing position. It's hard to believe he's already planning to leave, when he might still rebound. It's also hard to believe assertions he's dead set on running even if his support slides further. Veteran PMs don't like to seal their legacy with electoral rejection.
The fixed-date election law seems to leave plenty of time, but it's running out. Provinces bound to fall 2015 elections have asked Mr. Harper to move the federal vote forward to that spring. If he quits, the Conservatives would want him to leave his successor two election windows, spring and fall. And he'd have to allow months for a new leader to be chosen – making the fall of 2014 decision time.
For Mr. Harper, this year is a campaign for another chance to run, and that means going forward on strengths.
Yes, he'll have to fend off Senate-scandal developments and offer attempts at reform. Conservatives will try to dent opponents, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair, and especially the high-flying Mr. Trudeau. But Mr. Harper's offer still centres on protecting Canadian pocketbooks in uncertain times.
On Sunday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty reiterated the Tory narrative that Canada's doing relatively well amid international uncertainty – and expecting that his 2015 budget will show a surplus, raising the prospect of pre-election tax cuts.
Before then, the Conservatives will push consumer pocketbook issues like allowing people to pick cable channels, rather than bundles, an attempt to connect with voters' day-to-day economic concerns. They'll hammer the EU trade deal and pro-trade agenda to emphasize economic growth is the priority. Pushing pipelines is part of the package.
Most Canadians still feel concerns about jobs and their economic security, and the Conservatives hope that in time, that will trump the Senate scandal. But there isn't that much time, and for Mr. Harper, it will have to be full speed ahead in 2014.
Campbell Clark is The Globe's chief political writer.