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jeffrey simpson

In a Conservative Party television advertisement, leader Stephen Harper says the election is really not about him but rather about the economy and how well his government has managed it.

If only it were that simple for the Conservatives. Yes, the economy is the underlying narrative of the campaign for all parties, but narrators – that is, party leaders – count for more than the narrative itself. To twist the aphorism of the late Marshall McLuhan, the messenger is the message.

That means the persona of Mr. Harper, more than anything else, is the centre of the Conservative campaign, and therefore the campaign is about him, more than anything else.

This must be so for a variety of reasons, beginning with the simplest: He has been Prime Minister for nine years. As such, he has been in the public spotlight, his deeds and words daily scrutinized. Books have been written about him. Cameras have followed him everywhere in Canada and abroad. He has been the dominant figure in the country's public life for almost a decade.

Mr. Harper is running against the most powerful current in politics: time for a change. He must have known about this current when he decided to contest one more election, but he took the plunge. He would know enough Canadian history to appreciate that every prime minister who has tried to stretch his time in power lost at some point in the eight-to-11-year range. Canada does not have term limits in law; it seems to have them in practice.

More than any other factor, the time-for-a-change current focuses on the prime minister, who, in our system of government, is hugely powerful. Never was that observation more valid than in the Harper government, whose ministers have been reduced to secondary roles compared with the Prime Minister's Office and those who run it.

Moreover, the Conservative Party now offers a very weak cabinet, with no serious countervailing voices to that of the Prime Minister. Had the Conservatives decided to run on the slogan of the "Harper team," people everywhere would have laughed at them.

In the television age, which is now more than a half-century old, leaders are almost all that medium cares about. Personality over policy is a truism of TV. As any campaign rolls on – and this is the longest Canadian campaign since 1874 – media coverage becomes a following horse race, with the leader sucking almost all attention. After all, the leader is the principal spokesperson for the party so, to that extent, the election will be about the leader.

Mr. Harper, unlike former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien, was, and remains, a highly polarizing figure. A large number of Canadians, judging by polls, dislike him intensely. Are these detractors more numerous than those who intensely disliked prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney in their time? It's difficult to say.

What can be said is that those prime ministers led parties with wider support in the electorate than the Harper Conservatives. Even in winning a majority in 2011, they had a smaller share of the popular vote than the Progressive Conservatives did in 1988. So the share of the electorate not voting Conservative has been rising over the years. Put another way, in historical terms, the Harper Conservative Party is the smallest political vehicle for conservative forces in many decades.

And then there has been the government's style: often abrasive, relentlessly partisan, thinking always of its "base," willing to attack real or perceived foes. This style has been polarizing. It galvanizes supporters, whose convictions deepened that the party faces enemies who must be rebuffed. It galvanizes opponents to a passionate desire to rid the country of the other team's captain and chief strategist, the prime minister.

Plaintive as the appeal might be from Mr. Harper that the election is not about him, the appeal is misguided. He is the vote driver, pro and con, in the campaign. He created, more than anyone else, the modern Conservative Party and has led it in power and out. He set the tone; he guided the policies; and now he speaks for the party in another campaign. The people's verdict therefore will be, more than any other factor, about him.