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Last weekend, Stephen Harper interrupted his determined quest to shape Canada's future and turned his attention to the past.

He went to his high-school reunion.

Largely eluding the campaign media, Mr. Harper slipped into his old Ontario stomping grounds in a well-heeled part of Etobicoke to pose for snapshots and swap tales with other members of Richview Collegiate Institute's class of 1978. He had a word or two for almost everyone, and the conversation ranged from the rigours of middle-age dieting to memories of his childhood paper route.

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Later, those who rubbed shoulders with him during the class get-together at a pub called The Crooked Cue, or heard him speak to the school's 50th-anniversary dinner the following night ("I guess you're not wondering whatever happened to me," he joked), couldn't get over how different he seemed from the skinny, bespectacled bookworm they all remembered.

"He was not outgoing," recalls former friend and classmate Leonard Biddell. "You very seldom heard him speak out in class. The only time you heard him say anything was when no one else could figure it out."

Or, as one wag noted, had the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada exhibited back then the kind of self-assurance on display at the reunion, he could have got all the girls he wanted.

Today, the only date that means anything to the former Reach For the Top contestant is Oct. 14, when he hopes the electorate will give his Conservative Party its long-awaited majority in Parliament.

But the bewilderment of his old schoolmates mirrors the predicament facing many voters as Mr. Harper enters the home stretch of his third crack at winning that majority: They don't know what to make of the man.

Much has been written of his new image - the sweater vests, tickling the ivories and feeding babies their breakfasts. After 21/2 years in power, he suddenly wants to be seen as an ordinary guy.

But Stephen Harper is no ordinary guy. Figuring out who he really is could be dismissed as irrelevant but for one undeniable fact. Unlike prime ministers elsewhere, Canada's are not first among equals. They are first and foremost - they decide how a government is structured and operates, and what decisions it makes.

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The core of any government reflects the personality of the prime minister, because everyone in the system responds to his or her ways of thinking, personality traits, political ambitions and policy preferences. Know the prime minister; know the government.

Not only has Mr. Harper shaped the government to suit himself more than most of his predecessors, part of that shaping has involved controlling information tightly, imposing the strictest discipline on those who work for him and calculating carefully how to present the government's message.

There is respect for the Prime Minister's intelligence, but fear of his retribution runs deep in Ottawa. Almost no one inside the Conservative Party will speak on the record about him. The cloud of silence even descended on his old classmates when it became clear that he would be among them.

However, through dozens of interviews with Mr. Harper's ministers, advisers, civil servants and friends, a portrait emerges of a complicated man who is competitive, disciplined, intense, strategic, partisan and sometimes petty, but willing and able to learn from his mistakes.

Above all, he is possessed of a singular idea: to persuade Canadians to trust the Conservatives enough to dislodge the Liberals as their so-called natural governing party. He wants to erase the notion that one party insider says is "ingrained in the Conservative character … that we fight the fight valiantly, knowing that we will lose and that the forces of history and popular opinion are against us."

SUSSEX DRIVE SANDWICHES

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Showing up somewhere unannounced is nothing new for Mr. Harper. More than a year ago, Bill Fitsell was startled to see the RCMP arrive to perform a security sweep of the downtown Ottawa hotel where he and fellow members of the Society for International Hockey Research were meeting.

He was more surprised still when in walked the one member nobody had expected would attend.

"We more or less thought it was a photo op," Mr. Fitsell admits. "But he stayed for an hour and a half."

Mr. Harper, who loves hockey and has researched a book he wants to write about the game's formative years, met the relatives of Montreal Canadiens legend Howie Morenz, and then looked out the window as another student of hockey history pointed out the locations of the rinks where the Ottawa Silver Seven played more than a century ago.

"He seems to be a shy person, but in this crowd he was very convivial," Mr. Fitsell says. Later, Mr. Harper even invited society member Glen Goodhand back to 24 Sussex Dr. for lunch. Over sandwiches they made from the contents of the prime ministerial refrigerator, Mr. Goodhand filled in some gaps in his host's hockey knowledge.

Like the reunion, this little encounter does not fit with the austere and distant image that Mr. Harper projects with his clipped and controlled style in public.

"He has not introduced himself to Canadians," explains a former ministerial chief-of-staff in his government.

The staffer is right. After almost three years in the public eye as prime minister, and 61/2 years as a party leader, Mr. Harper remains a mystery. He seldom reveals his inner self, even to his colleagues.

The desire for privacy may be one of the great obstacles to his long-range goal, but it's also well entrenched. When he was still in high school, a former Richview classmate recalls, Mr. Harper was "a pretty insulated guy" - and so straitlaced that he would warn those sitting beside him not to copy his homework.

Even someone as close to him as University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan confesses that he did not know Mr. Harper played the piano until he read about it in journalist William Johnson's 2005 biography of his old friend.

Within his tight circle of family and friends, the Prime Minister is seen as warm and caring. To everyone else, he is a buttoned-up, buttoned-down politician who commands respect but little affection.

Close to none of his cabinet colleagues, he ignores many, intimidates most and trusts only a few. He abhors spontaneity and showmanship, fearing that they open the door to mistakes and misunderstandings.

He has a blazing temper, a foul mouth and a self-deprecating wit, but rarely shows his emotions in public.

Instead, he has imposed an iron discipline on himself - clearly evident this week as he waded through the crossfire in the televised leaders' debates - and his often-unruly party. So it's perhaps no surprise that 55 per cent of respondents to a Harris/Decima poll last spring agreed that "there is something about Stephen Harper that I just don't like."

Still, he's much improved as a political leader. As he looks ahead to his 50th birthday next spring, he has a more mature understanding of the complexities of Canada - and of what it takes to be politically successful - than he displayed as a young Reform MP in the mid-1990s, a political exile thereafter in Calgary (a period one friend calls his "angry turmoil phase") and then an inexperienced opposition party leader.

He has followed methodically a long-term political strategy, instructed himself in foreign policy, an area he knew little about, and moved with caution and abiding pragmatism, rather than pursuing an ideologically driven vision that his political adversaries still accuse him of harbouring.

Even so, the critics continue to warn that, armed with a parliamentary majority, the "real Harper'' will unleash waves of neo-conservative budget-cutting and tax-slashing to dismantle Canada's social programs, roll back the state and follow the agenda of big business.

Judging by his track record, they may be misreading him.

NODDING ACQUAINTANCES

If former prime minister Brian Mulroney had Canada's thickest Rolodex, Mr. Harper has the smallest. He speaks regularly to few people outside Ottawa. He is supremely confident in his own political judgment and intellect, and relies on the policy advice of cabinet secretary Kevin Lynch more than anyone else. He alone (or with an adviser or two) will draft key statements. Until recently, he made almost all the government's announcements himself, leaving ministers to stand behind him nodding like Bobblehead dolls.

"A very revealing phrase he often uses is 'politics is a business,'" says Mr. Flanagan, a former national campaign manager for Mr. Harper. "That kind of defines his view of it. He sees himself as the chief executive officer of an organization."

The privacy comes naturally. "If you're going to be successful, you're going to have a style that is organically related to who you are. I don't think Stephen can adopt the high revelatory style of Bill Clinton or the missionary preaching of Barack Obama."

Mr. Harper also shields his family - wife Laureen, son Ben and daughter Rachel - from public scrutiny, but he can be exceptionally open and thoughtful to old friends.

One such friend is irritated by the perception that the Prime Minister lacks compassion. Jim Tocher, now the 81-year-old chairman of Petrobank Energy and Resources Inc. in Calgary, says that seven years ago he was diagnosed with cancer and given a 15-per-cent chance of survival. During the seven months Mr. Tocher spent in Texas undergoing experimental treatment, Mr. Harper, then president of the National Citizens Coalition, phoned every week to see how he was, and "it wasn't just a perfunctory call."

Then, last Christmas Eve, the Prime Minister made a surprise appearance at his home in southwest Calgary and spent so much time chatting with his three-year-old granddaughter that Mr. Tocher had to interrupt just to get a word in.

There is a sense of noblesse oblige to Mr. Harper's mindset, he says. "At one point, he told me, in an ideal world, we wouldn't have to pay a person to go into politics. That he would do it as part of his public service.

"He wasn't suggesting it was practical … but in an ideal world, that's what you do."

If anything beyond politics connects Mr. Harper with Canadians, it's hockey. He loves to watch it live or on television, and his staff has an iron rule of scheduling: When he is in town, no matter what, he sees Ben, 12, play. (He also attends nine-year-old Rachel's ballet performances when he can.) He has yet to find time to write his book, which deals with the game from the 1890s to 1920, but hockey is one subject he is willing to discuss with journalists (his staff has arranged no fewer than four interviews for him during TSN broadcasts).

He also enjoys coaching the Conservative MPs' team in contests against Liberals. (It's supposed to be a friendly match, but he was dejected when one ended in a 5-5 tie.)

However, he played the game himself only as a youngster. In high school, his sport was long-distance running. His career was not marked by huge victories, but teammate Larry Moate remembers him as the best on the Richview squad.

Outside their school, "we were both probably middle-of-the-road runners, but Steven … would always finish. He was very methodical about it, very disciplined about it." And he kept personal things personal. The two ran together for two or three years, but Mr. Moate says he never knew that Mr. Harper suffered from asthma - "it didn't seem to be a problem when he was running."

RUNNING FOR OFFICE

According to a senior Conservative strategist, the connection to cross-country makes sense: "When you're a long-distance runner, you just look straight ahead, and program yourself to put one foot in front of the other. You've got to be steady, disciplined. Every step is the same. It's not like hockey or football, where there are lots of unpredictable moments, or places where spontaneity is imperative. …

"He's self-disciplined, self-taught. He's not like someone who played rugby or whatever. He didn't learn the dynamics of team play."

Case in point: the recent changes to Mr. Harper's wardrobe and waistline. He was famously mocked for looking awkward at the Calgary Stampede in an ill-fitting vest and cowboy hat, as well as being chubby and uncomfortable in a traditional Mexican shirt he wore along with U.S. President George W. Bush and Vicente Fox, then Mexico's president, at their first meeting.

As a result, a clothing adviser has been added to his staff - Michelle Muntean, a former TV makeup artist who also travels with him. Now, but for his new campaign-casual look, he almost always appears in suit, tie and dress shirt. But he has changed gradually, remembering how Reform leader Preston Manning's sudden makeover made him the butt of jokes.

Perhaps uncharacteristically, he also used to be a careless eater, favouring hamburgers, hot dogs, fries and soft drinks. (He especially liked smoked-meat sandwiches from Reuben's in Montreal.) That diet, coupled with a lack of exercise, produced the expanded waist line. He asked the cook at 24 Sussex Dr. to lower his calorie count, and is now said to feel better and to have more energy.

More energy from Mr. Harper will astonish staffers, ministers and civil servants, since he already had energy to burn. If there is one characteristic everyone who works with him underscores, it's his desire to plow through policy papers, cabinet documents, even Hansard, the transcripts of parliamentary debates. He works six days a week, devouring material as no prime minister since Pierre Trudeau. Even long-time senior civil servants are amazed. "Everything goes to him," one bureaucrat says.

Says another: "He's done his homework and it's very intimidating. He has a very weak cabinet, so he is way smarter than they are. When you go around the table, they hold back, because if they put in their five cents' worth, he'll throw in a dollar. I mean, like, he's read the annexes to the cabinet documents and can put his finger on some obscure point in Table 5."

Other than documents, he reads very little - perhaps a Tom Clancy thriller and Peter C. Newman's book based on his interviews with Mr. Mulroney. He largely shuns newspapers, magazines and television. In fact, he prides himself on not following the media too closely, in the belief that they can cloud a leader's long-term perspective.

His speeches (barring the one that cost an aide his job this week after he admitted plagiarizing much of it) betray his reading habits. Few contain philosophical or historical references. Instead, they reflect the man himself: straightforward, lightly rhetorical; a reference to local dignitaries, a bit about where the government is going, an announcement of a project, grant or policy, a few concluding remarks and goodbye.

He often reads them from a Teleprompter (which helps his delivery in French), rarely departing from the script even for a joke. That could lead to mistakes - even though he has shown that he can learn from them.

"Harper is an experiential learner," one Conservative insider says. "He seems to adjust. It doesn't look that way at the time, but he does seem to make corrections along the way. He doesn't like criticism, and doesn't invite it, but he listens to it."

After losing the 2004 election, which he thought the Conservatives could win, he spent months analyzing what went wrong. Some say he was in a funk; in fact, it was an extended period of serious soul-searching. "He did a lot of reflecting …,'' says someone who was close to him at the time. "I spent hours talking with him about this. He really did ask himself over and over again whether he and the job were matched. 'Am I the right guy?' he kept asking."

Having decided he is the right guy, he acts on his own judgment. "When he approaches a problem, he usually has a solution in mind," a Conservative strategist says. "He's like Gretzky in the famous quote about going to where the puck will be, not where it is."

Or, as a senior staffer says: "You can talk him out of things, but you'd better have your shit together."

If he does change his mind, he rarely admits it. "He'll have somebody come into his office and make a presentation," a friend says. "He'll listen and say he could never choose that position, and leave the conversation saying he'll never do that.

"But, two weeks later, he'll adopt that policy."

A senior staffer points to several issues on which the Prime Minister has altered course: moving up the second point of the goods and services tax cut ("we knew it would tie the government's hands for another 10 years,") and putting a Liberal (John Manley) in charge of the panel studying Canada's mission in Afghanistan, to say nothing of reversing campaign promises protecting income trusts and accepting the scientific reality of climate change.

THE LAUREEN FACTOR

He often stays up very late poring over briefing notes, but by every account, the Prime Minister is a devoted father. He no longer reads to Ben and Rachel as much as he did when they were younger, but he tries to eat breakfast with the family.

At the table, he rarely bothers with the morning papers. His wife, however, studied journalism in college, reads three or four newspapers a day and isn't shy about putting in front of him articles she believes he should see.

According to an aide, Ms. Harper is especially interested in stories of "outrageous injustices of the government somewhere that need to be fixed, if not by somebody else, then by her husband." A strong partisan who met her husband at a Reform Party meeting, "Laureen has a great influence in terms of picking out stories of the day that he will have in his mind when he comes to work."

Mr. Harper does keep an eye on Radio-Canada's all-news channel, to check on stories he might not hear about from an overwhelmingly anglophone senior staff, and to bolster his own command of French. And occasionally, he will listen to CFRA, an Ottawa all-talk radio station with decidedly right-wing hosts and listeners.

After breakfast, Mr. Harper heads off to work. As opposition leader, he used to walk the children to school; now, security personnel are more likely to drop the three of them off a few blocks away so they can walk the rest of the way.

By about 8:30, he arrives for his first meetings of the day, usually using the prime minister's office in the Parliament Building's Centre Block (he has another one across the street in the Langevin building).

When the House is sitting, he spends a great deal of time preparing for Question Period. His cabinet duties eat up several hours each week, as does preparing for caucus meetings.

Typically, on Tuesday, his chief-of-staff will prepare remarks that he can hone that night for delivery to the caucus the next day. During the meeting, his staff has learned to listen carefully to what the MPs say - because the boss listens carefully too, and even if someone brings up an issue that seems trivial, he will demand that his aides follow up.

The Prime Minister offers a full report about policy and politics as he sees them, and then answers questions. "After caucus is a good time to talk to him because he is the last one to leave," says an MP who has worked with him since their Reform days. "He and the whip will compliment people for work - unsung heroes who have been able to get things done in committees or with a bill. If he comes back from a foreign trip, he will review his impressions of the trip, the issues and the leaders he met."

But Garth Turner remembers something quite different. At a meeting before he was kicked out of the caucus in late 2006 (for criticizing David Emerson's decision to jump from the Liberals for a cabinet post), Mr. Harper warned his MPs that budget cuts were coming. Then, Mr. Turner says, he added: "These cuts will be announced in the next day or so; they will affect people in this caucus. They are going to cut programs in some of your ridings, and I want no comment about any of them.

"If I hear anyone speaking about them, you will have a very short political career."

This desire for control reflects just how inexperienced the Conservatives were when they arrived in office. Today the caucus knows the price of public dissent, so Mr. Harper needs to refer to the perils only occasionally (sometimes, with reporters hovering outside, MP will bolt past rather than be seen speaking to them). But back then, he had few members who had ever been in power, and he feared miscues would be pounced upon by the media.

The new party also had many factions - from Reform, the Canadian Alliance, the old PCs and the Ontario Conservatives of Mike Harris. They had all been knitted together for the election; only tight discipline would keep them that way.

"Part of the control mentality comes from having a caucus with orangutans in it," says a Conservative Party veteran who advised Mr. Harper at the time. "In Mulroney's time, we could send MPs off on some fact-finding mission and keep them busy, but with a minority they're around all the time."

In many quarters, the need to gag ministers and MPs was blamed on what the party paints as the left-leaning bias of the media. But one well-placed Conservative notes: "You guys see it as flinty-eyed towards reporters; I see it as flinty-eyed towards his own team.

"We're not going to have Scott Reid [a skeptic of official bilingualism]go out there and talk about official languages when he [the Prime Minister]wants to talk about something else. We're not going to have Rob Merrifield [a rural Alberta MP]go off and talk about abortion consent for teenagers or whatever the hell it is when it's a day he wants to talk about something else."

Muzzling the media, in other words, was partly designed to muzzle Conservatives.

NOT A RETAIL POLITICIAN

After the work day, Mr. Harper spends his evenings with family and briefing books. He seldom socializes away from 24 Sussex Dr., and holds few official events there, as well. Even when the socially active Laureen, 45, is honorary patron of an event in Ottawa, she will attend with an escort, often Environment Minister John Baird, while her husband stays home.

Most politicians enjoy the rush of the crowd and, if not, they can fake it. As Ronald Reagan replied when asked how an actor could possibly be president, "How can a president not be an actor?"

But a room filled with people he doesn't know is Stephen Harper's idea of hell. As one of his former classmates says of the Richview reunion, "Thirty years ago, he would never have gone, and if he did, he would have stood in the corner."

A Calgary politico says that he has "seen him work a room so painfully that it was painful for me to watch him," and another Conservative recalls taking him to events where he "stopped near the door, and stayed there talking to people without ever going around the room. He's a solitary guy. He does not schmooze. He's not a retail politician, that's for sure."

He would much rather catch a movie - a major form of relaxation. He will watch them at home, sometimes with political friends, or, on weekends, he will go to a movie theatre with his family. He likes all kinds of films, from thrillers like Michael Clayton to comedies like Borat. He can recite famous lines from many of them, and has a particular fondness for The Departe d - director Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning tale of deceit and betrayal.

Like other prime ministers, he keeps his religion to himself. Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin were all Catholics, while he belongs to an evangelical congregation. "He has a Christian dimension to him," a Calgary friend says. "I think back somewhere there is a Christian moral influence, in the sense of standards. It's very private. He wouldn't talk about it with me and, if I pulled on it, he would not be forthcoming."

A much more apparent influence was his father, an accountant who left Moncton to find work in Toronto after his own father, a school principal, mysteriously vanished never to be seen again. (A Toronto businessman who grew up in the city remembers his Scout troop searching the area in vain for signs of the missing man.)

Joseph Harper passed away in 2003, but the two were very close. A photo of his parents (mother, Margaret, lives in Calgary, as do younger brothers Robert and Grant) sits in his prime ministerial office, and, according to one friend, the Prime Minister "has said it himself: His father probably was the most important influence in his life. I think he misses his presence a lot."

The senior Mr. Harper, who went on to become a successful executive with Imperial Oil, loved history, especially military history, and collected insignias and pins from Canadian regiments. It was no accident, the friend says, that the Prime Minister insisted that the Red Ensign of 1917 fly atop the Vimy Ridge memorial in France during commemorations of the First World War battle there. "He knew exactly what he was doing when he did that."

The military connection also has sparked some rare glimpses of Mr. Harper's emotional side. At Vimy, when his wife was overcome after seeing the name of a relative on the monument, he knelt and placed his arm around her. In the Commons, when Greg Thomson, then minister of veterans affairs, offered a Remembrance Day tribute to those who had served their country, Mr. Harper looked overwhelmed and went right over to congratulate him. And in caucus one day, he choked up while describing his visit to Auschwitz.

GO WEST, YOUNG MAN

Joseph Harper also was a hockey fan and, like Stephen, rooted for the Toronto Maple Leafs. But unlike his son, he was outgoing and a jazz lover (the Prime Minister is said to be more of a rocker). To boot, he was a Liberal, at least until the rise of Pierre Trudeau and his infamous national energy program.

The NEP was despised in Alberta, which is where young Stephen Harper went to work for Imperial Oil after high school even though he'd had stellar marks at Richview and enrolled at the University of Toronto.

"I fell off the chair," says Len Biddell, recalling how the two bumped into each other at the school's graduation ceremony that fall. "He just said he'd burned out. In six weeks, he burned out and his uncle had a job for him and he had to get out of town. That to me was huge."

In high school, Mr. Harper served just one term on the student council - as a class representative, not an executive member. "It's like a being a back-bench MP," jokes retired history teacher Bob Scott, who was one of the Prime Minister's favourites.

But after the move west, the future politician came into his own - in Calgary, the city that since the oil boom has produced a counterpoint to the eastern vision of how the country should be governed. Calgary was, if you like, Canada's official opposition. But with the rise of Mr. Harper, it has become the intellectual centre of the government.

And yet, the Prime Minister from Calgary is almost as much a mystery there as he is everywhere else. Even in a place where big business prides itself on its political contacts, remarkably few corporate titans really know Stephen Harper.

For at least 40 years, Canada's prime ministers - apart from Joe Clark and Kim Campbell, blips on the political screen - have had powerful ties to the elite. But Mr. Harper is a political outsider who, having merged the ramshackle Canadian Alliance with the battered and beaten PCs, came to power not owing much to anybody. If anything, his roots are in Reform and the NCC, organizations that railed against prevailing wisdoms.

Now that the lifelong outsider has become that government's ultimate insider, the tension between the two roles is apparent.

On one hand, he has told his ministers' chiefs of staff that they should rattle the bureaucracy's cage, if necessary, to get things done.

According to a Conservative insider, "the most consistent message the Prime Minister gives" to such people is: "Be more political. Even though you're the government, don't hold water for the government. You're Conservatives. Don't get too comfortable doing what you're doing, because you don't belong here."

On the other hand, when he suddenly ended income trusts, an investment vehicle very popular in Calgary, some people in the business community there were outraged and confused. He had broken an election promise, without consultation or warning.

"I think the reaction when it happened was just shock," says John Brussa, a local tax lawyer. "You'd think that he was our guy, and that he would consult us. That really rubbed people raw. The whole process seemed geared to push this through. There were people who felt very betrayed." So betrayed, he says, that some of his clients asked the Conservative Party to return their contributions.

His distance from Calgary's elite reflects Mr. Harper's view that the success of the Conservatives does not run through big business connections. According to a former Reform powerhouse, it also may stem from the fact that the oil patch had easy access to Mr. Harper when he was an MP in the 1990s - but never used it.

"Harper is a little resentful about this. We set up meeting after meeting after meeting here, little lunches and dinners, where those guys were invited. They bought tickets because we were kind of a partisan family, but they sent their secretaries and their janitors - and not their vice-presidents.

"Stephen is the kind of guy who doesn't forget these things. I won't say he holds grudges, but he doesn't forget."

THE TEMPER

Then again, vengeance is hardly rare with Mr. Harper. In May, for example, he ducked a ceremony to mark the official unveiling of Mr. Clark's parliamentary portrait. The Prime Minister doesn't like the fellow Albertan who fought his merger with the PCs, but Mr. Chrétien had made it to Mr. Mulroney's unveiling, despite their differences, so he was expected to appear.

In private, the 6-foot-2 Mr. Harper can be intimidating. "He's a big man. He screams and he's got a filthy mouth," says someone who has seen his temper up close. "But then, so does everybody else."

A senior government official who has sat through many cabinet meetings says, "There's a menacing undertone sometimes. He can go very cold and cut ministers to the quick. He uses an icy, cold voice. … When he gets mad, he speaks softly but he gets very red in the face and goes to that mean, partisan place. He's very capable of making a piercing comment that's part of the intimidation."

Gerry Nicholls, a former colleague at the NCC, recalls a man who wouldn't tolerate errors, even typos in a memo. "If you made a mistake, you heard about it. The big thing was wasting money. That would drive him up the wall."

At one point, he says, NCC staffers disagreed with a Harper idea to finance a billboard criticizing a union for using members' dues to censure then Ontario premier Mike Harris. "They asked me to bell the cat, and I had to call Stephen and say, 'So, Stephen, you know, in our opinion, we don't think the billboard idea of yours is working very well.' There was a short silence and he said, 'I don't give a fuck what your opinion is.' So, that was it. The billboard went up."

Even as Prime Minister, he can be sharp-tongued in public - as when he dismissed the president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission as a "Liberal appointee" and claimed Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion's Green Shift plan would "screw" Canadians. But that is only because he's an "uber-partisan," a Conservative strategist says.

A senior bureaucrat agrees: "He's quite political and very partisan. I can't believe sometimes the meanness of his style in Parliament - or of the government, for that matter."

Tom Jarmyn, a former political adviser and ex-government staffer, agrees that the Prime Minister can be critical of those who aren't well prepared and will question closely those who defend conventional practices on the basis that this is the way things have always been done. "He wants to ensure people accept responsibility, and when he asks about weaknesses, it is not always pleasant."

But a former political associate in Calgary says that strong language can backfire. "If getting support from large numbers of people is the name of the game, then those types of comments don't help." The public, he adds, is never as partisan as political operatives, and "will never hate your opponents as much as you hate them."

Others close to Mr. Harper insist that his outbursts are growing less frequent, and he is as rough on himself as he is on others. "You can be around for a pretty raw bit of temper, which is not directed at anybody but himself," a senior official says. "If you didn't know, you might get worried about what the hell pissed him off."

A Conservative who has worked closely with Mr. Harper contends that "anger isn't quite the right word for what happens when he's ticked off. He just has a knee-jerk reaction. He has an emotional side and a rational side, and sometimes the emotional one comes out when provoked."

And a party strategist says that, although "I've seen glimpses of his temper," it springs from the fact that "like many academics, he's a perfectionist."

"Where do his demons come from?" asks a Conservative lobbyist who knows him well. "I don't know. Maybe that intensely competitive, partisan streak. … But he has learned to become more moderate and to change his views. … The old ideological sharp guy is pretty much gone."

NO GRAND PLANS

Canada's conservative parties have made more than their share of blunders, which helps to explain why they're often in opposition. Having served in three of them - Progressive Conservative, Reform and the Canadian Alliance - Mr. Harper is determined that his party not make the same mistakes.

By not making the same mistakes, and pursuing a cautious step-by-step approach to governing, he believes that he can achieve his overarching partisan objective: to make the Conservatives the natural governing party.

Critics inside the Conservative world complain of a lack of vision. A party organizer in Calgary says he admires Mr. Harper and concedes that "small-step conservatism has served the party and country well." But he also believes Canadians are now saying, "Okay, we're ready for the bigger picture of what you would do if we get you a bigger mandate. This is what they need. It's the lack of vision. The country is saying, 'You can govern. Now tell us more.'"

Those who want grand schemes from Mr. Harper will be waiting a long time - they just aren't part of his character or his political strategy. He believes that lofty aspirations are avenues to political defeat. Mr. Clark campaigned in 1979 on "real change deserves a fair chance," and his party found itself back in opposition after only six months in power. Mr. Mulroney, in Mr. Harper's view, bit off far too much - constitutional change, free trade, the GST.

"His whole pattern is incremental victories leading to bigger victories," a senior Conservative strategist says. "You can see this in the progression from Alliance leader to Conservative leader." Like a runner, "he keeps his sights about 100 metres ahead, and it's helped him in a minority situation. He learned a lesson from Martin, who aimed too far."

A Conservative MP who has known him for years says the Prime Minister was certainly "much more ideological when younger but is now more of the view that society is organic." He also "once said that people in the party have to realize that the ship of state is a large vessel. You just can't drop the anchor and reverse direction," according to the MP, who says he "learned a lot watching … Mulroney, who tried big things and left behind a party with no seats. That's not what he wants his legacy to be."

Tom Flanagan, whose own views have moved toward pragmatism, appeared to run afoul of people close to Mr. Harper by writing about the go-slow approach, but he feels that the Prime Minister has always rejected visionary politics. "Normally, conservatives should be incremental. They believe in gradual change, and respect for the wisdom of the ages and all that stuff," he says, adding that Mr. Mulroney was prone to sweeping visions and florid rhetoric, "and Stephen is very conscious of the weakness of that kind of style."

When Mr. Harper was still leading the Canadian Alliance, "supporters would come and say, 'Where's the vision?' Stephen would always reject that sort of pressure. He would just dismiss it. He'd say, 'There isn't going to be any visionary statement. You can deduce the vision when you see us in action, but we're not going to talk in these grand abstractions.'"

Just as he had learned to avoid the "vision thing" by that point, Mr. Harper also had seen what a lack of internal discipline could do.

When he was a Reform MP from 1993 to 1997, members were encouraged to represent the views of their constituents, even if those views deviated from the party line. Freedom of speech was part of Mr. Manning's idea of democratic populism.

In Mr. Harper's estimation, by shooting off their mouths, too many Reformers wound up shooting their own party in the foot. "He wasn't anti-democratic, but he never believed we could win power that way. And, you know, he was right," says Cliff Fryers, an early Reform strategist and close friend of Mr. Manning.

Again, during the 2004 campaign, Conservative candidates began to pipe up on touchy social-conservative issues, making headlines and forcing him to comment. The stories threw the campaign off message, and in the election port mortem, Mr. Harper resolved never again to allow such latitude. Deviation and public dissent were forbidden. Candidates would discuss policies their leader had outlined, and nothing else.

The great goal, of course, is to supplant the Liberals for more than just a term or two. Mr. Harper, like most Conservative partisans, feels that Canada, including much of media, the civil service, the cultural industries, and even large chunks of big business, has been shaped by Liberals and liberal-leaning elites. The challenge has been what to do about the institutions created by Liberal Canada. Do the Conservatives challenge them, as they have done with the highly controversial cuts to arts funding, modify them or let them be?

A former adviser recalls surveys the party conducted early in Mr. Harper's leadership that found five predominant lenses through which Canadians viewed their country: health care, not being American, peacekeeping, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and multiculturalism/immigration.

"All of them are Liberal constructs, or at least are identified with the Liberal Party and Liberal Canada, except for health care that is shared with the NDP," the ex-adviser says. "It's not that Harper is per se against any of these; indeed, he has to try to identify his party with some of them such as multiculturalism/immigration.

"But he is trying to search for new definitions that would be more akin to a Conservative Canada. The most obvious is defence, and what a more robust defence capability would mean for projecting Canada in the world."

LOVE OF THE FORCES

The Canadian Forces are popular; spending more money on them is not necessarily so, according to opinion polls. Mr. Harper knows this, but he believes that the spending is both necessary and politically useful. After all, a Conservative minister notes, "we're the only conservative party in the world that isn't the party of patriotism."

It helps that support for the military is something emotional for Mr. Harper. "He thinks that it's intrinsic in the Canadian experience," a senior minister says. "That's not rhetoric. That is part of his makeup. … I don't think he wears his religion on his sleeve, but he wears his love of the forces on his sleeve." And he wears the Canadian flag in his lapel. He will end a speech by saying, "God Bless Canada," or, more recently, "God keep our land glorious and free."

But the Harper brand is "nationalism in a different sense than that of Chrétien and the Liberals," a former colleague says. "He's from Western Canada, so he's optimistic. He's not anti-American. He was convinced that the Liberals' foreign policy had a lot of posturing in it, especially in defence. He's prepared to spend a lot on defence because he sees it as important and nationalistic and federal, even though he knows it isn't popular."

In more practical terms, the old conservative parties kept losing to the Liberals because their political base was too narrow, so after he came to power, says a prominent figure in his government's early days, Mr. Harper drafted a plan to broaden that base. The political objectives, he explains, were "to be seen fulfilling election promises, to use big spending as a way of shoring up their weakness, namely the perception that they were too ideological, to win a majority through Quebec."

He adds: "This government and Prime Minister are fighting old shadows, such as the impression of being anti-government, social-spending slashers - the way the Liberals portrayed them. Their whole political strategy was to be seen in the daily lives of people. All those promises were designed to connect with things people did in their daily lives: transit passes, tax credits for sports equipment, paying the GST. They wanted to make Stephen into Mr. Canadian Tire, to make Harper a regular guy."

But the change in tactics didn't stop there. In 1958 and again in 1984, Progressive Conservative leaders gained huge majorities by gluing nationalists from Quebec to a creaky coalition of prairie populists and old-style Tories from Ontario and Atlantic Canada. The 1958 coalition under John Diefenbaker fell apart within a term; the 1984 coalition of Brian Mulroney took two terms to disintegrate.

The political irony of Stephen Harper is that he is now trying to recreate the Mulroney coalition, something he once worked hard to break apart, so he now espouses ideas about Quebec's role in Canada that he once rejected. He used to insist that all provinces should be equal and argue that strict conditions should be laid down by Ottawa before another Quebec referendum. Although sensitive to the French fact in Quebec, he opposed special deal-making to keep the province in Canada.

As opposition leader, however, he accepted a list of Quebec demands and has acted on them as Prime Minister, spending billions to rectify what Quebec called its "fiscal imbalance" with Ottawa and, in one of his more startling volte-faces, having Parliament declare "Québécois" to be a "nation within a united Canada." He also worked the phones with Western Canadian premiers and politicians to forestall any backlash and, of course, imposed iron discipline on his caucus.

But Mr. Harper has a problem: French-speaking Quebeckers have never swung to a party of any stripe headed by an anglophone when offered one led by a francophone. Despite his considerable efforts, polls still show that they prefer the Bloc Québécois under Gilles Duceppe - although he hopes to build on the Conservatives' 10 seats, especially in rural and small-town Quebec.

Other candidates for his Conservative coalition are multicultural Canadians. Many new Canadians came here under Liberal governments, and remain grateful - and faithful to the party. Mr. Harper knows that changing their allegiance will take a long time, but he has given Secretary of State for Multiculturalism Jason Kenney the job of wooing them. In addition, the government has apologized for certain historical wrongs, reduced the immigration processing fee, and established a commission of inquiry into the Air India crash. When Mr. Harper visits a major urban area, he often speaks at ethnic halls or chambers of commerce.

What's Next

Every person who works with Stephen Harper agrees that he relishes his job. He likes the policy challenges, and having his hands on the levers of power. And yet, as a Harper supporter and senior Conservative notes, "This is a government in which no one looks like they're enjoying themselves. It's a dour, serious government, a bit like the leader, although he's having a fine time being Prime Minister."

Should, could Mr. Harper lighten up, even a bit, or display a bit more of himself to Canadians?

His "ordinary guy" routine on the campaign trail notwithstanding, a senior Conservative says, "his staff had a never-ending battle with him to work on the Broadway elements of politics, with little success. He's very calculating. He manages expectations: Never set yourself up too high."

His friend Jim Tocher agrees that what you see is what you get. "In the role he's in, on occasion he's got to act, but it's not something that's natural to him. I don't think he likes doing it. He's basically a very reserved person. He's just not naturally a political backslapper."

The story is much the same when it comes to policy. A young Conservative staffer complains that the party has not been more radical in cutting income taxes, eliminating the Canadian Wheat Board and slicing government programs, but fears that a pattern has been set. "The machinery is now used to Harper governing in a certain way, and you can't change course in mid-stream." Especially if the Prime Minister really believes that Conservatives are slowly proving themselves as competent managers worthy of the nation's trust.

Besides, dramatic departures are "not his style," Tom Flanagan contends. "He says his father and two brothers are accountants, and they have the charisma in the family, so he had to become an economist.

"Not everybody will like it. Maybe he'll never attract as much personal support. What he has to pursue is respect for accomplishments. People didn't really like Mackenzie King, either. You can make this style work, but you have to keep delivering the goods. You can see this in his slogans, one of the first ones being, Getting Things Done."

And the long-distance runner - bright, intense, strategic, cautious and confident in every stride - has certainly got things done, from merging two parties, to winning a minority government, to fulfilling most of his campaign promises.

He also has pursued two broad changes in the nature of the federal government: giving the provinces more running room by keeping Ottawa out of some of their affairs and giving individuals a bit more money in the form of tax reductions, credits and child-care cheques.

And yet, despite these policies that he assumed would be popular, despite all the problems on the Liberal side, despite raising far more money, despite governing in mostly excellent economic times, despite stroking Quebec, despite gearing up for elections, his Conservatives have yet to break through decisively.

The party entered the current campaign struggling to reach a majority and now, with the U.S. financial system teetering and public confidence sinking, Mr. Harper is still pushing hard for that elusive mandate, but is it too late?

"For the government as a whole, there's tremendous disappointment that we didn't get to an election last spring," says a very senior Conservative who worked closely with Mr. Harper. "The stars will not be that nicely aligned again. There isn't a lot left in the gas tank. At the same time, people are worried about jobs. On the family side, people are worried about what their kids are going to do for a living.

"That was building in the spring, and we were poised to take advantage of it. Can we do that again, or do we wear the slowdown? This is a tricky bit to manage."

Many Conservatives feel that, if they are held to another minority, at least the Liberals will be propelled into another expensive leadership race, giving Mr. Harper a lot of breathing room.

Then again, they may yet win the majority - what then?

From all appearances, the "incremental conservatism" he has pursued will continue in a bid to lock down that elusive middle-class support. He will still run, or at least oversee, all the important files, but perhaps delegate more responsibility and allow a few ministers to develop a public profile.

If anything, however, his government will be even more partisan. Media access to the PM has improved somewhat since the arrival of his new recruits to the Prime Minister's Office, but they are hardened politicos from the Conservative battles in Ontario. As well, there could be further moves toward Senate reform (an old Reform Party favourite), diluting the federal spending power (another sop to Quebec), and nibbling again at lower taxes.

HOMECOMING HECKLER

It's up to voters to decide what happens - which Stephen Harper is real - and even the folks at his high-school reunion have trouble making up their minds.

Former Richview student Jane Siberry, the singer, says she is no fan of his policies, but at the closing gala, the geek-made-good delivers a decidedly non-political speech. Extolling the virtues of a strong education and good teachers, it should be a total crowd-pleaser. But when he finishes, a man shouts out: "What about the environment? What about global warming?"

"It's a hoax," someone fires back, as a man bearing a camera turns to the heckler and says, "This isn't the place for that, asshole."

Although she graduated five years before the Prime Minister and didn't know him, Melissa Hillier manages to capture his contradictory impact.

"He's a bit of a stiff," she says, but then adds: "I guess I was pleasantly surprised."

Jeffrey Simpson is The Globe and Mail's national affairs columnist and Brian Laghi, the paper's Ottawa bureau chief.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Jeffrey Simpson, The Globe and Mail's national affairs columnist, has won all three of Canada's leading literary prizes -- the Governor-General's award for non-fiction book writing, the National Magazine Award for political writing, and the National Newspaper Award for column writing (twice). He has also won the Hyman Solomon Award for excellence in public policy journalism. More

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