This is the weekend when the referendum on Stephen Harper meets the tentative rise of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
The driving force for most of this campaign has been the Harperendum, a polarized debate pitting the Conservative Leader's solid base against a pent-up urge to boot him. Once Mr. Trudeau emerged as the front-running champion of the No side, the impulse for change fuelled his momentum.
But now it's down to casting a ballot, and the Liberals need more than anti-Harper sentiment to close the deal; they need voters to actually choose Mr. Trudeau. The deciding factor will be whether those who don't love Mr. Harper are really ready to envision the Liberal Leader as PM. If he has overcome the doubts with which he started the campaign, he'll be leading a bandwagon; if not, he'll feel the brakes.
He won't be aided by his party's ninth-inning error, when campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier resigned after it was revealed he advised Trans-Canada Pipelines officials on lobbying a new government. That can only sap the message of change. And then there are those qualms, the not-ready narrative, which Mr. Trudeau might have overcome in this campaign, or which might just nag some voters at the end.
That was the Conservatives' strategy all along. They spent millions to label the Liberal Leader as "Just Not Ready." That was aimed at driving down Mr. Trudeau's support, which it did for a while, but also at instilling qualms in the mind of the undecided, less politically minded voters who typically don't choose until the last minute. The Conservatives hoped that would make it easier to sway them with TV ads, or at least discourage those who might lean to the Liberals from casting a ballot.
But then the Conservatives also sputtered. The long election campaign was a tactical error that provided time to Mr. Trudeau to exceed the low expectations the Conservatives set for him. It meant two weeks on the hustings in August where Mr. Harper was pinned down with questions about the trial of Conservative Senator Mike Duffy. (And 11 campaign weeks also hurt Tom Mulcair and the NDP, who faced high expectations but didn't offer a clear campaign message.)
The Conservatives also underestimated the visceral sentiment against Mr. Harper. They started campaigning on strong leadership, then found potential "soft" Conservative voters didn't like Mr. Harper much either. They switched to "Protect our Economy."
That never really did it, so Mr. Harper grasped at straws. His strategists thought a law banning the niqab at citizenship ceremonies was a winner, notably in Quebec, but then Mr. Harper also hinted he might ban it for civil servants too, which his government had once ruled out. Mr. Harper didn't go full niqab because he was confident; that was desperation. So was the Monty Hall routine with cash-register sound effects as Mr. Harper tallied up Liberal promises. So was Rob Ford's appearance at his rally.
To be fair, it's hard to woo new voters after a decade in power. Mr. Harper's support rarely shrank, or grew. The TPP trade deal gave him a boost in polls for just one day. He's now campaigning in Quebec, where the NDP decline has put ridings up for grabs. He can hope older supporters and an established campaign machine will give him better turnout. But long-serving incumbents usually have to make voters fear the opponent, and Mr. Trudeau hasn't been a bogeyman.
In fact, he's been un-radical. His decision to say he'd run deficits was surprising, because it broke a political taboo. He's not running on big social programs, though, but on infrastructure projects, tax cuts and family benefits. Mr. Harper is running on low taxes, but Mr. Trudeau can argue most people will get more in their pockets with the Liberals.
And those qualms? To beat back their return, the Liberals are running upbeat ads of Mr. Trudeau campaigning that close with the word "ready." Three days ago, it seemed Mr. Trudeau's momentum was carrying him to majority-government levels of support. Now the questions about Mr. Gagnier might cool that. There's little doubt left that he's won the lion's share of the No voters in the referendum on Mr. Harper, but still some question about whether he's won an emphatic Yes for himself.