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Campbell Clark

When you ask Conservative cabinet ministers about health care, or the public finances, there's now a common answer: Jihadi terrorists are out to get us.

The latest was Finance Minister Joe Oliver, who shifted from fiscal matters in a speech Friday to tell listeners "there's a war being conducted by international terrorists, by jihadist terrorists, and we have to be strong."

Last month, when a tip foiled a Halifax mall shooting plotted by two young people, Justice Minister Peter MacKay opined they were the kind of people who were "susceptible to being motivated" by the Islamic State. Ten days ago, Health Minister Rona Ambrose segued in a speech from health care to Islamic State beheadings. Conservative ministers can now link anything to terrorism via non sequitur.

Get used to it. The Conservatives have an issue that works for them on many levels. Subtlety isn't required.

This week, the Commons Public Safety committee will start three days of hearings on new anti-terrorism legislation. You'd think the government would want a long debate on terrorism, but Conservatives MPs cut it short. And you can expect them to spend the debate talking about the threat more than the specifics of the bill.

The reason is simple. Politically, what matters most in the terrorism debate is not who has the answer, but who gains from the question. The Conservatives want voters to be asking themselves who is best to deal with terrorism – they think the answer will be Stephen Harper. It's one of several questions about fear and uncertainty they want voters to ask.

Voters already think Mr. Harper will do a better job dealing with terrorism, said pollster and political strategist Greg Lyle with Innovative Research Group. The more people are concerned about it, the better the Tories do.

But it's not only that. The concern plays into Mr. Harper's perceived strengths.

Rather than voting on issues, people use them to judge leaders, Mr. Lyle said – in a sense, issues are a job description for candidates. "If the issue is, who do you think is going to be tough enough to deal with those bastards, the answer is going to be Stephen Harper. It's not going to be Justin Trudeau."

That's also why the Conservatives are talking a lot about crime, their perennial favourite issue, which dovetails neatly with the fear of terrorism. The Conservatives, touting a bill to eliminate parole for convicts sentenced to life, issued a fundraising appeal entitled "Murderers in your Neighbourhood?"

The point, for Conservative strategists, is that if terror moves up the public's list of concerns, it creates a menu of issues on which Mr. Harper is rated relatively highly – in addition to managing public finances in a tough economy. "With balancing the budget, dealing with the economy, dealing with terrorism, dealing with crime – these are all tough issues that require strong leadership," Mr. Lyle said. And the Conservatives can take advantage if one of those issues jumps to the top of the news.

It could backfire. Voters can be turned off if they feel a party is trying to manipulate them. An opponent like Mr. Trudeau might contrast fear with hope, which worked for Barack Obama in 2008, when the U.S. was in two wars and an economic crisis.

Even a few Conservatives, such as Alberta MLA Thomas Lukaszuk and Edmonton Centre MP Laurie Hawn, have expressed concern Mr. Harper's team is going too far with fear – after an ominous Conservative Facebook post used a video by Somali extremists Al Shabab that raised the prospect of an attack in the West Edmonton Mall.

But Mr. Lyle doesn't think the Conservatives risk a backlash. The two groups Mr. Harper needs to retain power, his Conservative base and swing voters, won't be turned off.

The base loves it – so the Tories use it to raise money and recruit volunteers. Swing voters aren't likely to think it too blunt, Mr. Lyle said, because only blunt messages reach them – they tend not to listen to political news until the moment an election choice is thrust upon them. "I don't see any downside to it," he said.

So expect the Conservatives to keep changing the subject to jihadis. They think every time they do, voters turn toward them.

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