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Even with a majority, Conservatives see themselves as the underdog

Bernard Trottier is photographed during at interview at his campaign headquarters in Etobicoke on May 3 2011. Trottier, a Conservative, upset Liberal incumbent Michael Ignatieff in the federal election.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Conservatives, as you would expect, are the happiest people in Ottawa this week, with MPs spilling over onto both sides of the House of Commons, physical proof of their majority government in the 41st Parliament. But the more thoughtful ones also worry.

Reform. Canadian Alliance. Conservative Party. These were rebellions against the eternal Liberals and their backers in the media, the universities, and yes, on Bay Street.

Even after five years of government, Stephen Harper saw himself as the underdog, scrapping to survive in a House of Commons where his party was outnumbered.

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But now the Conservatives are the status quo. So how do they keep the rebellion alive?

It's something party strategists are thinking about a lot. Their solution: continue acting like a party on the outside, looking in.

Take, for example, beachhead ridings in Ontario. In the 2004 election, the new Conservative Party took 24 seats in that province, mostly in rural ridings. But some were on the very edge of the greater Toronto region. On the western edge, for example, Michael Chong took Wellington-Halton Hills by just over 2,000 votes.

The party and Mr. Chong went to work at entrenching Conservative support in the riding, giving it the time and money needed to establish a strong constituency organization. That organization was evangelical - it spread the word to the surrounding ridings, where the party worked hard at recruiting strong candidates and beefing up the ground game.

Two of those adjacent ridings went Conservative in the 2006 election, and in turn became beachheads. By 2008, the Tories had broached the greater Toronto suburbs of Mississauga-Erindale, Thornhill and Oak Ridges-Markham. Those beachheads, in turn, helped propel the Conservatives into complete control of the suburban ridings around Toronto, and even into the suburbs of Toronto itself, in last month's vote.

This summer, cabinet ministers will fan out into the new beachhead ridings - York Centre, Willowdale, Don Valley East, Scarborough Centre - raising the Conservative profile and strengthening the riding associations, this time targeting some of the few remaining Liberal ridings outside downtown Toronto: Etobicoke North, York West, Markham-Unionville, Scarborough-Agincourt.

Expect much the same approach in the Lower Mainland ridings in British Columbia.

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Of course the obvious question is: what about Quebec? The Conservatives established a beachhead around Quebec City in the 2006 election. But they had little luck expanding it, and that beachhead shrank in 2011 to the point where it's beginning to resemble Dieppe.

Should the party focus on trying to convince voters to abandon the NDP and support "Canada's Party," as Mr. Harper has taken to calling the Conservatives, even though Quebeckers have rejected the party too often in the past? Or should they write Quebec off the way the Liberals wrote off the West half a century ago, even if it risks alienating French Canada and stoking the fires of separatism?

If the upper ranks of the Conservative leadership have divined an answer to that question, they have yet to share it.

As Preston Manning, founder of Reform and the godfather to modern conservatism, has observed, all parties in government run out of new ideas, because there are none to be found within the Ottawa bubble. And all governing parties eventually run out of energy, conviction, leaders and steam. This will happen to the Conservatives, too.

They hope to make that happen later rather than sooner by convincing themselves and their supporters that the big, bad liberal elites are still Goliath and Mr. Harper's Conservatives remain the underdogs, even if every shred of evidence suggests that it is the Tories who are the giants now.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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