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Is in-and-out case trouble for Tories or 'speeding ticket' of scandals?

An unidentified staffer opens the door for a plainclothes RCMP officer during a raid on Conservative Party headquarters in Ottawa on April 15, 2008.


Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are being savaged by the opposition over the so-called in-and-out campaign financing scheme.

The fur has been flying in the Commons ever since four senior Tories were charged by Elections Canada with "willfully" exceeding spending limits in 2006, when Mr. Harper formed his first minority government.

On Wednesday, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff attacked the Prime Minister directly, accusing him of encouraging the Tories to break the law and defraud Canadian taxpayers. Mr. Harper and his team, however, have argued it was simply an administrative matter and an accounting dispute

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Regardless, the question remains: Will the in-and-out controversy hurt the Tories? We asked our pollsters to weigh in.

DARRELL BRICKER doesn't think so. The Ipsos Reid considers it of interest only to partisans, saying: "If you don't like the Conservatives, this just gives you one more reason to dislike them."

But there's no sex, no drugs no Charlie Sheen and no cash-stuffed envelopes. So this scandal lacks "the lurid content that proved to be so destructive to the Liberals with Adscam," he says.

"Nobody has been caught passing envelopes of cash to questionable characters. And no one has been accused of using public funds for personal as opposed to political gain."

Without that "type of angle," he believes this dispute will "descend into a boring battle of lawyers and public officials, which won't be resolved until well after the next election."

DIMITRI PANTAZOPOULOS agrees. "This is seemingly the speeding ticket of political scandals," the Praxicus Public Strategies pollster argues. "As with speeding tickets, the alleged charges relate to administrative, not criminal matters."

To prove his point, Mr. Pantazopoulos did an online search of the phrase "in and out" to show how scandalous this scandal really is. Instead of outrage from Canadians, Google turned up a great deal about a burger chain in the U.S. Midwest.

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"The fact is people do not vote on single arcane issues," he says. "They vote for issues that affect their lives and they draw impressions from events and actions that fit a narrative."

But this narrative is complicated - "too complex to communicate" just like other "second rate petty scandals" such as the so-called "HRDC billion-dollar boondoggle" that the opposition used, unsuccessfully, to pummel Jean Chrétien's government.

"Regardless of when the election is called, the in-and-out affair will only be important to the extent it fits within a broader narrative. To date, I fail to see that narrative," Mr. Pantazopoulos says.

FRANK GRAVES, however, sees the story causing potential harm. "Coming on the heels of the still-active Oda affair, the in-and-out issues can pose some significant challenges for government."

But the EKOS Research president provides some caveats. He notes that while the financing scheme on its own may not have "enough traction to cause serious damage," it could be hurtful as part of a narrative that suggests "the government has been oblivious to bending and even breaking the rules for political advantage."

While Mr. Graves isn't certain the opposition is capable of delivering such a narrative, he says "it is clear that for a government that took office on a mandate of superior ethics and accountability, the last thing you want as you go into an increasingly likely spring election is a fast-moving ethical issue catching fire."

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NIK NANOS says the Elections Canada charges may just be the "deciding factor in Stephen Harper's election calculus."

The Nanos Research pollster looks back to the sponsorship scandal of 2006 that rocked the Liberal Party to its foundation. "At the time, the Harper Conservative promise of accountability and transparency resonated with Canadians," he notes. "Fast-forward to 2011 and we find the Conservatives battling charges from Elections Canada related to campaign expenses.

"This is certainly political fodder for the opposition parties and one can expect the opposition parties to use this issue as part of their broader narrative on the Conservatives, how they govern and what they will do to win."

In his experience, Mr. Nanos has found that issues that affect the day-to-day lives of Canadians -health care and jobs - affect their behaviour in the polling booth. So it will all come down to how Canadians are thinking on election day.

"If Canadians are in the booth thinking about jobs and the economy, it will likely be advantage Harper. If they are thinking about the Tories and Elections Canada charges, the current Tory advantage in the polls will likely be in jeopardy."

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