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Politics Tories ramp up ground game in effort to catch leading Liberals

Toronto city councillor Rob Ford arrives to a Conservative campaign event in Toronto on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2015.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Harper Conservatives, running second to Justin Trudeau, are resisting turning up the tempo of their leader's public campaign even as they clamber to catch up to the front-running Liberals.

Attention-grabbing rallies with party faithful are a classic end-of-campaign strategy to demonstrate momentum in front of the TV cameras, and while the Harper campaign still stages these events, they are fewer and farther between than the other parties.

The Tories say they're instead dedicating as many volunteers as possible to the ground game in every riding, where they are betting that identifying Conservative voters and getting them to the polls will make the difference in tight races.

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Stephen Harper's daily schedule starts with an event to relay the campaign message of the day and take questions from the media. But these are not jam-packed with Conservative supporters; Tuesday's campaign stop in the Toronto community of Etobicoke drew no more than 200 people. The one the day before in Waterloo, Ont., had the same number or less, with boxes of apples stacked around them to create the impression the venue was full.

Much of the rest of the Conservative Leader's day takes place out of the glare of the media spotlight, with only token representation from the media on his campaign bus. He conducts one-on-one interviews with local media. Rallies, when they do take place, happen in the late afternoon or early evening.

Campaign spokesman Kory Teneycke defends the Conservative strategy, saying the Tories have little interest in staging throngs of supporters for the media when a tight election looms where the difference in some races will be decided by logistics.

"We want our volunteers not at events, being an audience for [the media]. We want them out meeting voters and identifying the vote. At the end of the day, this is a very close race and the ground game is going to matter," Mr. Teneycke said. He contrasted that with the Trudeau campaign.

"The Liberals are busing people from all over Southwestern Ontario to go to rallies," the Conservative aide said. "If you are on a bus travelling from Kitchener to the Greater Toronto Area, well you're obviously not out knocking on doors in Kitchener. We have a different strategy and a different approach."

The races in places such as Ontario, home to more than one-third of the seats in the House of Commons, have grown more challenging for the Conservatives as NDP support wanes and the centre and left-of-centre vote consolidates behind the Liberals. This means the Tories can't count on the NDP to split the vote as they did in previous elections.

The Liberal Leader is also reaching out to centrist Conservative voters – the so-called Red Tories – and trying to win them over to firm up his lead.

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Mr. Harper, however, said he doesn't think his supporters will buy this. He argued that Mr. Trudeau's grander election promises, which include three years more of deficits, won't sit well with Tories.

"I don't think that Conservatives, people who certainly lean to our party, are going to for a minute buy the idea that in an unstable global economy we should go on a spending binge of $150-billion, paid for by cutting benefits, by raising taxes and running deficits."

As Mr. Trudeau targeted his left flank, Mr. Harper sought support from the right wing of his own party, receiving the endorsement of controversial former mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug.

The brothers turned up to support Mr. Harper at the Conservative Leader's morning campaign stop in Toronto Tuesday.

Their arrival at the Etobicoke event was publicly noted by host Ted Opitz, a local Conservative candidate seeking re-election, when he welcomed the "two great sons of Etobicoke."

Mr. Harper made no mention of the Ford brothers during his address and did not embrace or shake hands with them publicly. Conservative officials said the Tory Leader met with the Fords backstage.

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Rob Ford, who has undergone treatment for a rare form of cancer, is a divisive figure among voters, but has retained a loyal block of supporters – even after admitting he had smoked crack cocaine after months of denial.

There were about 200 Conservative supporters on hand at a Toronto-area film production studio to hear Mr. Harper warn about the tax hikes that the Tories say will accompany a Trudeau government. Polls show the Liberals have a solid lead over the Tories with less than a week until Election Day.

Rob Ford's role at the Harper event – sitting quietly in the crowd – is different from the 2011 election when he joined the Conservative Leader on stage to support his re-election.

Doug Ford, a former Toronto city councillor, told media covering the Harper event that his political machine could have mustered 5,000 supporters for a Conservative rally if the campaign wanted it. "If the Prime Minister wants thousands of people, we can have thousands of people … we could easily create the crowds."

He quickly changed the subject to an attack on Mr. Trudeau, whom Mr. Ford warned would cost Canadians money by raising taxes. "It's the economy, economy, economy. Keeping taxes low, putting money back into the taxpayers' pocket … Justin Trudeau wants to spend your money and Stephen Harper wants to put money back into your pockets."

‎Rob Ford dropped out of the last mayoral race after learning he had cancer and Doug took his place, losing to John Tory.

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Mr. Harper has always had an alliance of sorts with the Fords and their populist brand of politics, although the strongest link between the brothers and the federal Conservatives was likely their friendship with the late Jim Flaherty, a former Harper finance minister and Toronto-area MP.

Etobicoke Conservative candidate Bernard Trottier, who is seeking re-election, defended the practice of seeking support from a divisive figure such as Rob Ford.

He said the Conservative Party is a "big tent" and parts of the electorate respond to the former mayor's fiscally prudent approach to government.

"There's a certain segment of our community that really supports that message about 'Don't spend money you don't have,' " he said.

Mr. Teneycke, the Conservative campaign spokesman, said the Harper campaign is grateful for the support of the Fords.

"Etobicoke is ground zero for Ford Nation," Mr. Teneycke said, referring to the Ford brothers' supporters.

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"They are very popular with Conservatives who support our party ... A lot of the people who voted for them also vote for us."

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