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adam radwanski

The word out of the Conservative camp the past few days was that Stephen Harper was ready to move beyond the battle against the niqab, the push to deport dual citizens convicted of terror-related offences and the promise of a new tip line to report "barbaric practices."

That stuff had worked well, Tories said, in making them more competitive in Quebec and invigorating their base elsewhere. They would no doubt continue to fundraise off it and use it to help get out their vote on election day, but in terms of the air war, they had made their point. The "closing argument" in the federal campaign's final leg would be about the economy and taxes.

Then, Mr. Harper went on television on Tuesday, and said that beyond prohibiting the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, his government would consider trying to ban it for all public employees. And in the process, he demonstrated that when you light this kind of fuse, you can't just walk away from it.

Mr. Harper was not on the CBC to talk niqab. He was there to tout the pan-Pacific trade agreement supposed to help with that refocus on economic stewardship. For about five minutes, he got to do just that, and looked happy about it.

It is difficult to know what to make of what happened next. When host Rosemary Barton switched topics to the identity issues – which any good interviewer would do, when she had in front of her a prime minister currently accused of stoking anti-Muslim prejudice – Mr. Harper's enthusiasm visibly waned. But when she asked him where the anti-niqab business stopped, and whether it could extend to public servants, he jumped toward the logical extension of his messaging so far by opening the door.

A few moments later, after some pressing about whether he could be indirectly encouraging anti-Muslim violence, Mr. Harper landed on the line he could have given off the top, playing down such issues and (questionably) accusing opponents of politicizing them. By then, though, the news emerging from the interview would be all about the niqab, not the topic he was there to promote.

Mr. Harper is so meticulously prepared for his public appearances that he had presumably planned that answer if the relevant question came up. And some of his advisers – not least campaign manager Jenni Byrne, who has made little secret of thinking nobody outside Ottawa cares about trade deals – will probably be perfectly happy to see a hot button pressed even further.

But the reason other senior Conservatives have been saying it's time to move on, beyond some concern about pushing their luck, is a belief that anyone who will vote for them on cultural or security fears is already on board by this point. To win over enough swing voters to bump them up a few points in the polls and put them back in majority-government range, this theory goes, requires driving home the contrast between themselves and their opponents on economic issues and taxation.

That is what they will do through advertising between now and Oct. 19, trying to combine a reasonably optimistic Conservative economic message with the argument that Canadians can't afford Justin Trudeau. It will probably be the script for most of Mr. Harper's tour events as well.

But it is hard not to wonder, based on what happened Tuesday, if a pivot is really possible at this point.

Whether the Conservatives have gambled correctly on it being a political winner, it looks more and more like their version of Canadian values stands to define this campaign for an awful lot of people.

"It's not by any means the biggest issue of this campaign – the biggest issue of this campaign is the economy," Mr. Harper said toward the end of the exchange on CBC.

It was a little late for that.

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