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The state of the federal contenders Add to ...

What are Mr. Ignatieff's strengths? What Mr. Ignatieff has going for him is the residual power of the Liberal brand. The reflex of Canadians, when they don't like the blue team, to troop to the polls and to vote for the red team, or vice-versa. In other words, Mr. Ignatieff's most compelling asset is a tactical voting argument, similar to the one George Smitherman tried to use to beat back Rob Ford in the recent Toronto municipal election. "If you don't like Mr. Harper, you have no choice, no option, you must vote for me".

This Liberal entitlement argument was quite powerful in Ontario in the 1990s in the hands of an able politician like Jean Chrétien. It has proved progressively more ineffective in the hands of progressively less effective politicians (Paul Martin, then Stéphane Dion, and now Mr. Ignatieff) once challenged, as both the Conservatives and New Democrats have learned to do over the course of the 1990s and in more recent election cycles. Canadians don't like to be told that a party is entitled to their votes. They don't like to be told they don't have any choice. And they don't like be told they have to do things. Mr. Smitherman learned this. So did Mr. Martin and Mr. Dion. Possibly the same lesson awaits Mr. Ignatieff. Or, this time, maybe the trick will work.

What are Mr. Ignatieff's weaknesses? Canadians are in a populist mood, and don't seem to feel much affinity for elite and elitist, archly-amusing, bon-mot academics these days. Listen to Mr. Ignatieff on the radio and his problem is (cue mid-Atlantic BBC/Harvard faculty club accent) rather evident, if we may be permitted to say so, is it not? The television picture doesn't improve matters. Both the Conservatives and the New Democrats are well positioned to exploit Mr. Ignatieff's inability, so far, to build affinity among working and middle class voters. Always remembering that the bones of that Liberal vote are still hanging in there fairly well.

Mr. Ignatieff is also unlucky in the underlying provincial factors that much of federal politics are built on. The Liberal brand is broken (arguably dead) in francophone Quebec. Dalton McGuinty's Liberals in Ontario have a better story to tell, but may also be showing signs of third term syndrome in recessionary times. The Liberal brand is a non-factor in provincial politics across the Prairies. B.C. politics are a Rubik's cube in mid-motion, but it is fair to say that a substantial plurality in British Columbia are not in the mood to give Liberals more to do. Thus, there are very few places in Canada where provincial factors work to Mr. ignatieff's benefit, and many places where they work against him.

So then, there's Quebec and its 75 federal seats, a plurality seemingly likely to go where they've been going for a generation now.

What to make if it all? Mr. Harper will plead for a Conservative majority. Mr. Layton will call for a new and better progressive government. Mr. Ignatieff will remind Canadians of the Liberal Party's entitlements and will ask if it isn't, rather, time to give them their due? Quite conceivably this will all cancel out in the 3D chess game that is federal politics, handing Canada another balanced multi-party Parliament. It is also conceivable that Canadians are going to decide they want to change the channel, and that they are quietly building up an electrical charge to do something surprising.

* * * * *

Among his other virtues, Nathaniel Hawthorne lives on in the Internet for writing that "happiness is like a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you." This is a hard lesson for people involved in politics, but not bad advice. Especially to those of us driven (by health issues, for example) to possibly be slightly more reflective about things. Christmas, in particular, is not a bad time to sit down quietly for a while. That's my plan. So I'm going to be quiet in this space for the next few weeks unless provoked.

Many thanks to the hundreds of readers who have written over the past year to help me do a better job here. We are an interesting bunch, Globe readers, and a fine one. All the best to you and yours; may happiness alight on you and those you love, butterfly-like; and may we live in surprising times next year.

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