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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty take questions at a Toronto news conference on June 1, 2009. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty take questions at a Toronto news conference on June 1, 2009. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)

Adam Radwanski

McGuinty borrows from Harper's 'strong, stable' campaign playbook Add to ...

Dalton McGuinty might as well have gone ahead and winked as he delivered the line.

It was in response to an inevitable question about minority government scenarios that the Ontario Liberal Leader, campaigning for a third term as premier, seemingly had a little fun. At a time of economic uncertainty, he said, voters would be wise to elect a “strong, stable, Liberal majority government.”

If those words sound familiar, it’s because if you delete “Liberal” and add “national” and “Conservative,” it’s the same phrase that Stephen Harper repeated at campaign stop after campaign stop this past spring.

In echoing it, Mr. McGuinty tacitly acknowledged that he’s making much the same case for re-election that the Prime Minister did a few months ago.

Much the same as Mr. Harper did, Mr. McGuinty is presenting himself on the campaign trail in a way meant to play on – some would say exploit – the palpable sense of nervousness about Canada’s recovery from recession.

Mr. McGuinty is campaigning on a platform that the Liberals call “a serious plan for serious times” – which, they’re eager to point out, makes fewer expensive promises than those of their provincial competitors. And rather than trying to show passion, every event is aimed at displaying a sort of sturdy professionalism. Mr. McGuinty has spent most of the campaign so far touring factories or construction sites or hospitals and delivering slightly somber lectures on how well the province is moving forward.

Even at rallies, he’s keeping any emotions well in check. In his home riding of Ottawa South last week, a few hundred supporters were boisterous as they waited for Mr. McGuinty to make his entrance. But when he took to the microphone, rather than feed off the energy in the room, he brought it down a notch – making a relaxed and even-keel pitch for continuity in which he declined even to build to a big finish.

As much as it may be kryptonite for adrenalin junkies, it’s an understandable approach for incumbents who care less about being loved than about keeping their jobs. Just as Mr. Harper aimed to strike a contrast with a blustery Michael Ignatieff – and, ultimately a bigger challenge, with Jack Layton – Mr. McGuinty is trying to look like an adult next to the two rookie leaders he's up against. Progressive Conservative Tim Hudak, in particular, seems to have played into that strategy by coming off intermittently glib and angry, pulling out props at some events and raising his voice about Mr. McGuinty's failings at others.

In at least one regard, Mr. McGuinty is actually better suited to delivering the steady-as-she goes message than was Mr. Harper. Inoffensive and non-confrontational, he is not as personally polarizing as the Prime Minister. With his advisers spouting the mantra of “never too high, never too low,” he is a veritable comfort blanket of a politician.

But there are several other ways in which Mr. McGuinty has a tougher case to make than Mr. Harper did.

The flipside of the Liberal Leader's mild-mannered persona is that, dating back to the provincial Tories' branding of him as “just not up to the job,” he has had to battle the perception that he's ineffectual. Mr. Harper's perceived ruthlessness, while at times a liability, may have been more useful than Mr. McGuinty's relative softness when it came to projecting unwavering leadership.

Somewhat conversely, Mr. McGuinty has been more of an economic activist (or at least more of an interventionist) than Mr. Harper. While the merits of the Prime Minister’s economic policies can be debated, his lack of any huge risks – coupled with Canada's lack of turmoil, relative to other countries – fit neatly into his steady-hand argument. Meanwhile, Mr. McGuinty has governed a province that has had a rockier economic recovery than some other parts of Canada, and much of his strategy for growth revolves around a leap of faith on green energy.

Then there's the matter of familiarity breeding contempt. Mr. Harper, who had presided over a minority government for five years, did not have to contend with fatigue as much as a two-term majority premier who has had almost unchecked power for eight years. For him, asking for a majority was a call for a sort of change – just one that he could simultaneously argue would make for more stability.

But Mr. McGuinty can only play the hand he’s been dealt. If voters want change or excitement, he’s not their guy – and there’s nothing he could do to change that.

Mr. Harper showed earlier this year that seriousness can help an incumbent make up for a multitude of other shortcomings. If Mr. McGuinty has an opportunity to sit down with him again in an official capacity, the two leaders will have something in common to discuss. Perhaps they can even stop being serious long enough to share a laugh about the time Mr. McGuinty spoke in Mr. Harper’s language.

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