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Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump speaks with members of the media during a campaign stop in Londonderry, N.H., on Jan. 23.Matt Rourke/The Associated Press

That was quite a successful retreat the Liberals held in Montreal over the last few days.

They heard from “experts on the middle class.” The Prime Minister gave an interview in which he assured Canadians he “gets” why they are so unhappy with him. (”I think there’s a lot of people who are just rightly grumpy at the world right now.”) They backpedalled on another signature government policy. And they took dead aim at their main opponent in the next election: Donald Trump.

“As the United States election cycle goes into full swing ahead of a pivotal election later this year,” CP reports, “federal Liberals north of the border have been increasingly comparing Canadian Conservatives to Trump Republicans … The refrain from Liberal MPs is that the federal Tories are doing ‘American-style’ politics, and their leader, Pierre Poilievre, is representing ‘Trump North.’ ”

Sure enough, in a speech to the Montreal Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Trudeau framed the choice in the U.S. election as “do they want to continue to be optimistic and committed to the future or are they going to choose to step back, out of nostalgia for a moment that never existed?” He added that the next election in Canada would be “a similar choice.”

Well, what would you do if you were at 24 per cent in the polls? Actually, it’s worse than that. An Angus Reid poll finds that just 9 per cent of Canadians actually support the Liberal Party and its program. The other 15 per cent say their primary motivation in voting Liberal is to block the Conservatives.

That’s often the way, of course, with any party – a third of Conservative supporters say they’re just voting to block the Liberals. And it’s a traditional Liberal message to the wandering tribes of progressive voters: get on board with us, or be responsible for letting them in.

The problem for the Liberals is that there aren’t enough people who currently think that way about the Conservatives – not enough to make them vote Liberal, at any rate. Add to the Liberal vote those likely NDP and Bloc Québécois voters who say they would switch to the Liberals if it looked like the Conservatives were going to win, and you’re still only at 34 per cent – seven points behind the Conservatives.

Hence the appeal of Operation Trump Card. To be clear, Mr. Trump, and how to deal with a second Trump presidency, is a legitimate, indeed compulsory issue for anyone aspiring to lead this country. But Mr. Trudeau’s message is not “I’m a better choice than Poilievre to deal with Trump.” His message, delivered with varying degrees of subtlety, is: Poilievre is Trump.

On the one hand, this is absurd. I don’t know anyone who thinks Mr. Poilievre is genuinely as bad as Mr. Trump, or anywhere close. On the other hand, the Conservative Leader is content that people who like Mr. Trump should see a resemblance. That includes, according to an Abacus poll, 57 per cent of Conservatives – and, at a guess, 95 per cent of People’s Party of Canada supporters.

That the Conservatives should have reached 40 per cent in the polls is owing in no small part to the party’s success in luring back PPC voters. That is unquestionably related to Mr. Poilievre’s personal brand, as the guy who made his name as a junior cabinet minister for brawling with Liberals, then campaigned for leader on a platform of enthusiasm for bitcoin and suspicion of the World Economic Forum.

I think that was what was going on in that weird business about the Ukrainian free trade deal. Again, I don’t know anybody who seriously thinks the Tories would abandon Ukraine. But might some fringe voters take the whole thing as a wink by Mr. Poilievre to them? They might.

It’s a clever game – but it also raises legitimate questions. How far would he go to appease them? What lines would or wouldn’t he cross? Maybe he doesn’t believe any of the things he says, but so far as he’s willing to say them, or worse yet act on them, does it matter?

It’s not only logical for an opponent to probe these contradictions – it’s a public service. Politics often involves an attempt to bridge the unbridgeable, creating coalitions out of disparate groups who may have very little in common. It’s the job of a leader to keep the coalition together – and it’s the job of his rivals to test his ability to do so. If he can’t, better to find that out before the election than after.

It is very much in the Liberals’ interest to try to flush Mr. Poilievre out, to force him to make the choices he has successfully elided so far. But it is also in the public interest.

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