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Bruce Anderson is the chairman of polling firm Abacus Data, a regular member of CBC The National's At Issue panel and a founding partner of i2 Ideas and Issues Advertising. He has done polls for Liberal and Conservative politicians in the past, but no longer does any partisan work. Other members of his family have worked for Conservative and Liberal politicians, and a daughter currently works for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. He writes a weekly digital column for The Globe and Mail.

Critics of Justin Trudeau have spent a couple of years saying he's just style, no substance. These days, it's harder to make that point stick, as there is lots of Liberal policy on offer.

In contrast, Mr. Trudeau wants to replace a prime minister whose strength is substance and whose weakness is style.

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Among voters who are tired of the Conservatives, we've asked what troubles them most. An underperforming economy? Different values from those of the Conservatives? Or the style of the government?

It's the last of these that bothers the most people.

The Prime Minister seems trapped and constrained by an awkward manner. His supporters rarely even defend his style any more – instead they say "a leopard can't change his spots – stop expecting that Stephen Harper will change." Not much of a defence, but it has a ring of truth.

The question of personal style and how it relates to the substance of political leadership came to mind as I was reading Mr. Trudeau's speech on Canada-U.S. relations, delivered earlier this week.

In the speech, the Liberal leader made clear that he's a believer in the central importance of working on the economic relationship with the United States, from early negotiations on fishing rights, later on the auto pact and more recently free trade.

His speech focused on a belief in the importance of diplomacy, and what can be accomplished through the personal effort of a prime minister. He argued that diplomacy reflects "our core Canadian values" and that building relationships takes hard and continuous work, even more so when differences in interests are evident.

He was blunt in his criticism of Mr. Harper in this regard, suggesting that on this PM's watch, Canadian influence has waned and our interests have suffered.

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By making this argument, he wanted to remind voters that the Liberals may share a progressive mindset with the NDP on some issues, but often take a different approach on economic and trade questions.

The NDP has in the past been strident in its criticism of U.S. economic, environmental and foreign policies, to a degree not usually shared by the average Canadian voter.

The Liberals, on the other hand, have tended to pick their spots: sometimes finding common ground and at other times agreeing to disagree. This, for many voters, works fine: Too much enthusiasm for America will get you in trouble, too little can make Canadians nervous too.

Mr. Trudeau made clear where on the dislike/like/love-America spectrum he would be, and how his approach would compare to earlier prime ministers. He suggested, without being explicit, that his approach would not mirror that of his father, who had a frosty relationship with Richard Nixon, nor that of John Turner, who was dead set against free trade with the U.S.

If in office Mr. Trudeau followed the approach he laid out in this speech, he would draw more on the legacy of Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney than any recent Liberal PMs.

Along the way, Mr. Trudeau was drawing a contrast between the Mulroney style of diplomacy and that of Stephen Harper.

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Most Canadian voters won't have paid a huge deal of attention to the conduct of Canada-U.S. relations in recent years. But they may have noted that Canada's PM and President Barack Obama (who has a 70-per-cent-plus approval rating in Canada) are not on good terms.

They might also have noticed that the most visible issue separating the leaders is about an oil pipeline. Mr. Trudeau says the pipeline is a good idea, and might be approved by now if it hadn't been for a belligerent approach by Stephen Harper. He's hardly alone in that view – certainly at this point, reasonable people might wonder if a different approach would work better.

It's rare that Canada-U.S. relations, or foreign policy in general, will determine the outcome of a Canadian election, and that's most likely to be no different this year.

Conservatives appear to want foreign policy to be an exam question in this election as they believe neither the NDP's Thomas Mulcair nor Mr. Trudeau can pass such a test, and that Stephen Harper will ace it.

But it's not self-evident that if Canada-U.S. policy were front and centre that this would play to Mr. Harper's advantage. Canadians might observe Mr. Harper as more knowledgeable about the finer points of issues, but with little to show for such prowess after almost a decade in office.

They might also be tempted by the notion that a new leader, one more open-minded to different points of view, and committed to nurturing good relationships, sounds closer to the natural Canadian style. And just might do more to move our agenda with other countries along.

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