Skip to main content

For the past month, Michael Ignatieff has made a spirited effort to get Canadians nationwide to rise up against Stephen Harper's government.

Now, a week before election day, the Liberal Leader has little choice but to rein in his ambitions. Flagging in support, virtually tied in opinion polls with Jack Layton's New Democrats, Mr. Ignatieff will make his last stand by focusing on the province where his party has its best chance to make gains.

He will make a brief Western swing early this week, and will visit Quebec as well. But there is no intention of a frantic coast-to-coast swing, of the sort that Paul Martin embarked on to save his 2004 campaign. Instead, the bulk of his remaining campaign days will be spent in Ontario, where he plans to speed through 15 battleground ridings.

In some cases, Mr. Ignatieff will be trying to keep Liberal-held constituencies from turning Conservative - including York Centre, the Toronto riding currently held by Ken Dryden, where former prime minister Jean Chrétien is expected to put in an appearance. Back in Mr. Chrétien's day, that was one of his party's safest seats in the country. Today, even many Liberals concede that they'll be hard-pressed to hold onto it.

Most other stops, however, will be in Conservative-held ridings where Mr. Ignatieff's campaign team still sees room for pickups. While the NDP's surprising surge has made the Liberals an afterthought in much of Quebec and British Columbia, polls show that they remain a relatively strong second to the Conservatives in Ontario. And Liberals insist that their volunteers are energized in long-held ridings, particularly in the southwestern part of the province, that swung Conservative by narrow margins in the last campaign.

If even a few of those ridings go red again, Mr. Ignatieff might be able to lay some claim to having reversed his party's slide through the previous three elections. At this point, amid talk of being supplanted by the NDP as the Conservatives' primary national opponents, that would qualify as a minor victory.

Still, the fact that he has been reduced to such modest aims must come as a bitter disappointment to Mr. Ignatieff.

In stark contrast to Mr. Harper, whose strategy has mostly been to stay out of trouble while microtargeting enough seats to put him over the top, the Liberal Leader has run an old-fashioned, freewheeling sort of campaign. At one energetic event after another, he has delivered impassioned and mostly unscripted attacks on the Conservatives for their alleged subversion of democracy. And he has rambled from topic to topic - health care, postsecondary education, Canada's place in the world - in an apparent attempt to reach as broad an audience as possible.

In the campaign's early weeks, performing above the modest expectations that had been set for him, Mr. Ignatieff received largely positive reviews from the media. But if Canadians were paying attention, there were few signs they were as impressed. And an underwhelming performance in the leaders' debates, combined with Mr. Layton's surge and Mr. Harper's constant fear-mongering about an opposition "coalition," has precluded Mr. Ignatieff from gaining any momentum at all.

The Liberals still haven't given up on changing the public's impressions of Mr. Ignatieff; on Easter Sunday, he appeared in a 30-minute television infomercial aimed at more positively introducing him and his family. But perhaps unsurprisingly, it was a seemingly frustrated Liberal Leader who visited The Globe and Mail's editorial board the same day.

On issues of policy, Mr. Ignatieff was thoughtful and eloquent. But he also appeared agitated when questioned about his difficulty in connecting with voters.

In response to the inevitable question of why he wants to be prime minister, he said that it was for the struggling people he's met on the campaign trail. When an editorial board member pointed out that he must have had some other reason for coming back to Canada and entering politics in the first place, he looked exasperated.

"It's my country," he said. He then paused, banged the table and repeated himself, before saying that he was tired of talking about this subject.

But try as he might, Mr. Ignatieff has not yet been able to get voters to warm to him. And there was a sense, from his tone and demeanour, that he knows he's running out of time.

At a calmer moment during Sunday's meeting, Mr. Ignatieff described himself as "serenely optimistic" about his party's fortunes. But there will be little that's serene about his last-ditch efforts over the next week.

In Mr. Chrétien's era, Ontario was the pathway to Liberal majorities. Now, Mr. Ignatieff will work frantically to prevent it from being the pathway to a Conservative one.

With reports from John Ibbitson and Barrie McKenna