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You've come a long way, Iggy. Is it far enough?

Stacy Unger, 26, bounces out of Cowboy Coffee on to the sidewalk in downtown Kamloops. She jumps up and down, shouting, "I did it! I did it! I asked him!"

Her exhilaration goes totally unnoticed by the crowd pressing against the tall, more or less lanky figure in jeans and cowboy boots - yes, Michael Ignatieff - trying to ease his way out through the Cowboy Coffee door a few steps behind her.

Can this be … Iggymania?

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The green, embryonic shoots of Iggymania?

The excitement of the young who succeed in talking to him, the people handing him advice books, sheaves of paper detailing causes, prayer cards, paintings, home baking, the people reaching out to touch him, shake his hand as his Liberal Express bus whistle-stopped through British Columbia this past week?

An echo of Iggymania last seen in 2006 when he ran for, but failed to claim, the party leadership?

There's no doubt at all that a new political Michael Ignatieff is on stage. And no doubt at all - after 27,000 kilometres travelled and 110 events staged across the country this summer, with more to come on a tour intended to reintroduce Mr. Ignatieff to Canada - that the people he meets are responding to him with what looks to be a lot like enthusiasm.

His robotic body language has gone, along with most of his leaden phrases. He speaks with a lively cadence; he has lost the faux dropped g's. He can be genuinely funny. He shows a keen curiosity in what people tell him and feeds back what they say in his speeches.

He now sounds like the 17 books he has written, warm, engagingly anecdotal and authentic.

I tell him on the final day of the B.C. tour that he has changed so much since I first wrote about him as a politician four years ago. He says: "A lot of it is storytelling, a lot of it is connecting to something I always used to do. I've been a storyteller all my life, and I had to recover, get back to that stuff. Nothing else was working."

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The question is how much it's going to help.

Pollsters have discovered that the Conservative vote is much more resilient than the Liberal vote. That means when the Conservatives get in trouble, their support drops, but in the absence of trouble it springs right back again. The same isn't true for the Liberals. And while Mr. Ignatieff looks to be working things out for himself - although it hasn't yet registered - his party still languishes in an identity fog.

The Liberals' aspiration is that maybe, just maybe, this summer Mr. Ignatieff has moved beyond trying to dig himself and his party out of a hole and is now climbing the mountain.

Ms. Unger, a restaurant worker, has come to the Cowboy Coffee meet-and-greet event because her 92-year-old oopa, her Ukrainian grandfather, wanted her to ask Mr. Ignatieff if the name of the Ukrainian town of Ignatkovo near where her grandfather was born has any connection with Mr. Ignatieff's aristocratic Russian family.

She has come as well to get an idea of the man. She's never before voted.

Mr. Ignatieff tells her he isn't sure about Ignatkovo but thinks there may be a link.

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And the man? "I like him," Ms. Unger says. "He's a smart guy. I think he's a good people person." And then, interestingly: "I'm not afraid of him." A curious yardstick for measurement, but her reaction nonetheless can be marked down as positive.

Ding-ding-ding go the bells of political strategists and pollsters. They are very interested in Ms. Unger. Mr. Ignatieff's tacticians have him touring the country precisely to win the political hearts of Canadians like her.

Thirty years ago it would have been a 95-per-cent certainty that Ms. Unger - a single, young, urban woman (Kamloops in south-central B.C. has a population of 90,000) - would have voted Liberal or at worst NDP. Now, along with students and visible minorities, she belongs to a traditional Liberal constituency that has devastatingly withered under the party's last two leaders, Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff.

Leadership polls done by Harris-Decima for The Canadian Press show just how bad the devastation is.

In May, the poll showed that both Mr. Ignatieff and Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper had negative net ratings - more people disliked them than liked them: Mr. Harper by a negative score of minus-10, Mr. Ignatieff by minus-26.

What was highly unusual about Mr. Ignatieff's score is that Canadians were paying sufficient attention to an opposition leader outside an election campaign to indicate they disliked him intensely.

The newest poll now shows why the Liberals have Mr. Ignatieff on the bus.

While Mr. Harper's negative rating has improved to minus-5. Mr. Ignatieff's score is virtually unchanged at minus-25. He has, in fact, no positive scores with any demographic group measured by Harris-Decima and the poll shows he's far more alien to Conservatives than Mr. Harper is to Liberals.



In effect, he's seen as an effete central Canadian snob. So you can understand the kind of tour he's on. Michael Ignatieff has to find a constituency out there. Harris-Decima chairman Allan Gregg


A constituency for himself as a human being, and for the party he leads, because his job is to personify a political vehicle that's distinctly different from Stephen Harper's Conservatives but at the same time rings true with voters.

ON THE ROAD

The B.C. tour starts in Nanaimo and ends four days later in Kelowna. What emerges in between is an intriguing portrait of Canadians and their democratic ethos and a snapshot of Mr. Ignatieff - reflective, insightful and largely self-provided.

From the moment he arrives at the Nanaimo farmers' market on the height of land above the Vancouver Island city's picturesque and dainty harbour, it's clear he's now a celebrity. People frequently are numbed into star-struck silence when he walks up to them, or they nudge each other, point at him and whisper his name.

(Only one young Canadian he encounters, at Vancouver's Pacific National Exhibition on the 100th anniversary of it being opened by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, has no idea who he is. She's embarrassed by the fact. "I can't believe I haven't heard of him," she says.)

At a gathering in a Nanaimo coffee shop and bakery, he gives his first Liberals' Big Red Tent speech in the province. It goes like this:

If you're a Red Tory, and you're wondering what's happened to the "Progressive" that used to be part of the Conservative Party's name, then, says Mr. Ignatieff, "C'mon in to the Big Red Tent."

If you want child care and climate change legislation and a ban on oil tankers on B.C.'s northern coast, then you've got to realize that a vote for the NDP or the Greens - for a party of protest - only means the Conservatives will come back as the government. "So c'mon into the Big Red Tent," he says. C'mon into the party that's neither right nor left but sits at the progressive centre.

It's Mr. Ignatieff's counter-move to Stephen Harper's declaration that he intends to move the default position of Canadian politics to the right and make it Conservative. Mr. Ignatieff wants it to stay in the centre where it was when the Liberals were in office and were called Canada's natural governing party.

University student Simon Schachner at the bakery points out to him that the constituency where he's speaking and the one he's heading toward are contested between the New Democrats and the Conservatives, thus why shouldn't he tell Liberals to vote for the NDP?

Mr. Ignatieff responds with a story about his mother saying of him as a little boy that he played well with others. But he doesn't exactly answer the question. "I'm very disappointed in your response," says Mr. Schachner.

It appears to be the Liberal leader's only clumsy step on the B.C. tour.

Before he gets back on the bus, he's handed a Nanaimo bar. "A Nanaimo bar . . . in Nanaimo," he says. He raises it like a communion wafer and takes a bite.

The Liberal Express travels down the Malahat highway to B.C.'s capital and the riding of Victoria. The crowd waiting at trendy Cook Street Village is almost entirely white and grey and well-to-do.

Doody Jonas pushes through to Mr. Ignatieff's side and hands him a book titled The Habits of Highly Effective People. "I thought it would help his leadership," she says.

Harry Ray asks him to autograph a copy of his latest book, True Patriot Love, and he says to Mr. Ignatieff: "I want to give you a word of advice: Keep being yourself."

What he means, Mr. Ray says, is that Mr. Ignatieff hasn't previously looked like a real person on TV but now he seems to. "I'm sure he was being poorly handled," he says.

How perceptive.

Zsuzsanna Zsohar, an astute student of her husband's political skills who provides instant critiques of his speeches (one that sounded pretty good to me in Richmond didn't meet her test because it was missing an "arc"), says her husband's performance has improved because he's stopped using a text and most of all because he's no longer being managed by party strategists. A couple of days later, Mr. Ignatieff tells me much the same thing: "You get managed, you get over-managed, you say, ' Okay, these guys must know what they're doing,' and you learn the hard way that it isn't right for you, it's right for somebody else. I'm not criticizing them, but it's just not right for me."

So he's unleashed and on his own.

After moving through the 300 people who greet his bus at Cook Street Village, he takes the microphone.

In the manner of a hot gospel preacher he rhythmically chants a litany of Stephen Harper and Conservative government sins: prorogation, firing of the Veteran's Affairs ombudsman, attacks on diplomat Richard Colvin who blew the whistle on the treatment of Afghan detainees, the punishment of the RCMP officer who disagreed with the government on the long-gun registry, the violated Charter rights of Omar Khadr, the cancelling of the mandatory long-form census, the criticism levelled at him because he lived outside the country most of his adult life.

"They should be ashamed of themselves for saying that," he says. "A Canadian citizen is a global citizen. That's the Canada I have lived."

The crowd claps and dogs jolted by the applause bark at almost every point he makes. And beside me, Betsy Symons is fervently responding at each dramatic pause in Mr. Ignatieff's speech. "That's right," she shouts. "Yes, that's right. Yes, absolutely." And on the last item, about it being wrong to live outside the country: "That's crap."

She explains: "Most of us standing here have children somewhere else in the world. My daughter is doing graduate work in Finland."

So a Conservative taunt that may not sell in Victoria. Beryl and Graham Leavett-Brown are present because they received a phone call from a friend in the morning saying Mr. Ignatieff would be in town.



We wanted to get a feeling for him, some insight into who he is. We'd heard he was intellectual, cold, aloof and he flip-flopped. Beryl Leavett-Brown


Says Mr. Leavett-Brown: "He seems very personable. I hope what he says is sincere."

At the risk of putting things too simply: Mr. Ignatieff is combatting the Prime Minister's ideology with an ideological anti-ideology.

In response to Mr. Harper's belief that the state should stick to a thin gruel of tasks in its citizens' lives - defence, the administration of justice and the production of public goods (say, education) not in the interest of any individual to produce - Mr. Ignatieff argues that the country is too complicated, too vast to be run by a simple creed.

Canada, he tells his audiences, is an unfinished country, an unfinished union. Its regionalism is simultaneously an enormous advantage because it provides suppleness, allows for different ways of doing things, but it's also a permanent challenge to maintain common citizenship among people from nearly every country on Earth.

"That's what government's there to be, the granite under your feet."

In a conversation on the bus, heading south from Kamloops through the South Thompson valley, he describes himself as a Pearsonian Liberal, after his diplomat father's iconic friend and colleague, Lester Pearson, prime minister from 1963 to 1968.

"The thing about Pearson I so admire is the perseverance, the persistence, this raw hanging in there and building. He had two minority governments, he had his back to the wall the whole time, he wore bow ties and had a lisp and didn't speak the other language all that well. He wasn't a great orator, he wasn't even a great manager.

"And he has the best legislative record of any prime minister of the 20th century. And, you know, so much of that I think is in jeopardy - the Canada of social programs, the Canada of publicly funded health care, the Canada of publicly funded pensions, the Canada that believes you've got to have a government to hold this country together.

"The battle of Canadian politics is that Stephen Harper has a different view of what that centre is, and he wants to hold the country together on a different axis."

So Michael Ignatieff is now a more polished politician, leading maybe a more focused party, but a party so far with just a skeleton of ideas and not much flesh and muscle of policy. A party without, for that matter, the pugnacious, damn-the-torpedoes discipline of the Tories.

But first things first. First, the voters have to emotionally bond with a leader, see him or her as personifying their ideals and aspirations, as being the Jungian hero figure who speaks to the collective mind below their individual minds.

"It takes a long time to learn politics, to learn the joy of it, I mean the pleasure of it," Mr. Ignatieff says. "I've still got a lot to learn and I wish I could do it faster. It's like being a writer. It took a lot of hard work to get a voice that's my own and it's taken a lot of work to get a voice that's my own as a politician.

"And the thing about Canadian politics they never tell you about is the people. Let's not make it too fancy. I'm having more fun doing it, I feel more relaxed, I'm having more fun.

"Let me say something else. I've been pushed around pretty good, and I feel like pushing back."

I say: "Both within your party and outside of it?"

He says: "Yeah."

FULL CIRCLE

What's emerged from this trip is that Mr. Ignatieff is having fun with people.

In Richmond, he trips over the name of the Liberal candidate, Steve Peschisolido. So first he gets the crowd chanting his name - IG-NA-TI-EFF - and then he gets them chanting Mr. Peschisolido's name - PES-CHI-SOLI-DO. And then he says, "In a country as great as ours, everyone has a funny name."

In Squamish, he and Ms. Zsohar are attempting a quiet dinner on the patio of their hotel when they're suddenly surrounded by an exceptionally well-wined wedding party celebrating the marriage of Dan and Bianca Arnold. There are shouts of "Hey, look who's here!" and in the blink of an eye the bride, the groom, the bride's mother, the best man and the guests are lined up to shake their hands and talk about their lives.

On the other hand, at a gathering in the Squamish Adventure Centre the following morning - where Mr. Ignatieff poses with a stuffed cinnamon bear - Lynn Hyodo tells him she's just spent the week at a "heart virtues" camp and wants him to name the three things that guide him and inspire him to act.

Mr. Ignatieff thinks a moment and replies, "I hate bullies, I love the country and I want to be able to take my own head off my shoulders and put someone else's on so that I can feel what they're feeling."

He moves on to talk to someone else and Ms. Hyodo confides that she's disappointed with his answers. "It's not what I was hoping for," she says. She would have liked him to say leadership, respect and integrity.

"His answers show that he's still a little boy inside who is twisting and who has issues with his father and that's going to hurt his leadership."

His bus stops at the small town of Yale, the historic community at the head of the Fraser River, known in the 19th-century gold rush days as a veritable Sodom and Gomorrah of vice, violence and lawlessness.

Mr. Ignatieff's great-grandfather, George Monro Grant, passed through Yale in 1872 with engineer Sanford Fleming, the surveyor of the Canadian Pacific Railway line, and Mr. Ignatieff presented the Yale museum with a copy of George Grant's diary. Just as he was speaking, a train came down the line, its whistle echoing off the Fraser canyon walls. He loved it. It was pure-gold Ignatieff history and drama.

Cleverly, the organizers of the Liberal Express arranged for shifts of MPs to join Mr. Ignatieff on the bus across the country. The MPs have witnessed how successfully the trip has gone and reported back to their caucus colleagues, not all of whom wished for it to be successful, says a senior caucus member who spoke - understandably - on condition of anonymity.

"There was a turning point in the whole thing for me," Mr. Ignatieff says. "The bus broke down two hours out of Ottawa and I thought, 'Well, there you go.' But that was the turning point, the first two hours, because within 40 minutes we had a replacement bus. I made it to the Cornwall meeting that night in the rain. The people had waited two hours, 250 people in the room, and I thought, 'Okay, this is going to be alive.' In other words, it was the crowd that saved the tour."

"The emotion in the room was palpable," says Ms. Zsohar.

"That was the most important night of the tour for me," Mr. Ignatieff concludes, "because I thought, 'We can do this. They're here and it's going to be okay.' "

Cornwall was the first place I heard Mr. Ignatieff speak on his 2006 leadership campaign. His speech was turgid, the crowd was dead. I'm pretty sure I remember people leaving before he finished.

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