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Liberals roll out 'operation fast start' ads

Liberal attack ads are playing up contempt charges and lack of transparency.

Michael Ignatieff cut his teeth as an author and intellect on studies of history and war. Now, in perhaps the biggest battle of his life, he's trying to prove he can draw the right lessons from Canadian election history.

Two and a half years ago, Mr. Ignatieff's predecessor, Stéphane Dion, held his fire for the first 10 days of the last election campaign, while the Conservatives unleashed a flurry of attack ads that branded the Liberals as weak and left them unable to find the oxygen and space for their own message.

Now, even as they reel from months of similarly aggressive Conservative ads that have left some voters confused about the very citizenship of Mr. Ignatieff, the Liberals are hitting back early and often in the campaign, vowing to match the Conservatives and NDP in force and frequency. This week, the Liberals are rolling out the first of three waves of campaign ads: more than 20 radio spots tailored to local markets across the country, and a new national television ad, called "Family Care," promoting their agenda to attract middle-class families.

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The Liberals are calling it "operation fast start."

"We were nowhere in the last campaign for the first 10 days and paid for it," said a senior Liberal official. "Won't be happening this time."

There is also a new attack ad in which the Liberals highlight recent Tory ethical troubles, including the RCMP investigation of Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's former adviser Bruce Carson and Mr. Carson's girlfriend, a former escort.

A Liberal official pledged the ads will be played in "heavy concentration" in Ontario and British Columbia. This reflects the party's key priority of winning back seats, especially in Southern Ontario, that the Tories narrowly captured in the last campaign, as well as staving off Conservative efforts to win away Liberal-held seats on the edges of Toronto and in the Vancouver area.

The new strategy was designed, in part, from feedback from focus groups that Liberal officials held in the past few months in Halifax, Montreal, Winnipeg and Vancouver, as well as Brampton, Ont., where their candidate, MP Ruby Dhalla, is perceived to be vulnerable, and Kitchener, the site of several ridings they hope to win back from the Tories.

The ads and the media buy are being handled by the Liberal Party's election ad consortium, Red Leaf, an ad hoc group that changes with each campaign. The current crew is headed by Bob Richardson - a Toronto businessman, long-time Liberal and senior adviser to the team that successfully bid for Toronto to host the Pan Am Games in 2015 - and Peter Donolo, whom Mr. Ignatieff brought on as chief of staff in late 2009.

Mr. Ignatieff has taken a beating from the pointed pre-writ Conservative attack ads that have defined him as a power-hungry man who returned to Canada after a 30-year absence only to grab the top Liberal job for himself.

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The party's research found the Tory claim that Mr. Ignatieff was "just visiting" to be effective. In one focus group, they said a middle-aged South Asian woman wasn't sure that Mr. Ignatieff was even a Canadian. But the feedback from the groups turned positive when they showed ads featuring him talking about his history and values.

That helped shape the Liberal strategy for the first days of the campaign, rolling out ads introducing Mr. Ignatieff to voters as well as flagging some of the issues. "In the first weeks you lay the groundwork," said the official. "You introduce the guy and some of the issues - some of what we feel is important."

The Family Care ad plays up a central Liberal theme of their campaign: providing support for middle-class families they say are being squeezed financially.

The party might be well advised to run that more often than their newest attack ad, which presents a dizzying litany of alleged Tory ethical abuses within the suffocating time-frame of a 30-second spot. "If you did seven spots, instead of one spot with seven issues, you'd be 10 times better off," suggested Geoffrey Roche, the founder of Toronto ad agency Lowe Roche. "Probably, three would rise to the top, where people would say: 'Oh my God, can you believe they did X?' And then you'd have 25 seconds to talk about it."

He added: "What's missing is the simple old-fashioned idea: 'We're talking to an electorate that doesn't care, and is angry, so you'd better bloody well think of something intelligent to say that is a strong point of difference, as to why they should pay attention.' "

That may come at the campaign's end, when the Liberals say a new round of ads will seek to show the "stark choice" between Mr. Ignatieff and Mr. Harper. The official said it will be designed to demonstrate that the Liberals are the "best vehicle to stop him."

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The Liberals are also buying "out-of-home" digital ads, placements on flat screens in elevators, at the gas pumps and in convenience stores. And there is an extensive social media effort, including Facebook pages, a YouTube channel and a series of Twitter feeds of the party and its candidates.

Putting Mr. Ignatieff front and centre in the ads runs in contrast to the Liberal campaign buses that make no mention of him, but rather are designed - or so Liberal strategists have said - to play up the team.

The official would not say how much they will spend on ads, just that they have enough staff to be nimble and turn ads out quickly to counter the other parties.

With a report from John Ibbitson

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