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Liberal MP and leadership candidate Justin Trudeau attends a Remembrance Day ceremony in Montreal, Sunday, November 11, 2012. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)
Liberal MP and leadership candidate Justin Trudeau attends a Remembrance Day ceremony in Montreal, Sunday, November 11, 2012. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Lawrence Martin

Harper’s attacks on Trudeau will be vicious Add to ...

For Stephen Harper, losing to a Trudeau would be the ultimate humiliation. It was his visceral hostility to Pierre Trudeau’s attitude to the West, exemplified by the national energy program, that propelled him into the Reform Party in the first place.

So you can imagine how Mr. Harper felt when a poll came out last week showing that the Liberals under the leadership of Justin Trudeau would defeat him handily. And you can imagine his relief when, right on the heels of that poll, the storm emerged over an interview Mr. Trudeau gave some time ago in which he spoke of how the country would suffer with Albertans at the helm. This was almost in a league with Mr. Harper once saying that Albertans, owing to their treatment from Central Canada, should build a firewall around the province.

The two men are polar opposites. Their deep differences mark a time of unusually deep divisions in our politics – a time of contrasting ideologies, regions and visions, making the stakes extraordinarily high. Mr. Harper wants to further his dismantling of the house Trudeau built and cement a conservative ethic. Progressives are of the hope that if George W. Bush could make a Barack Obama possible in the United States, Stephen Harper is making a new force for liberalism possible here.

Mr. Trudeau’s reckless remarks will link him more closely with his father. Given the lingering animosity toward Pierre Trudeau on the Prairies, his son had been trying to distance himself by disowning the despised NEP.

The challenge for Justin, who lacks the diamond-hard intellect of the père, will be to show his mettle in other ways. He has the charisma and the potential for appeal to a new generation. But does he have the ice in the veins that his father showed in standing up to terrorists, separatists and haters of all stripes? In Mr. Harper, he is facing an opponent who has that ice-cold glare and the smarts behind it.

Mr. Harper is not spoken of in such terms too often, but for my money he ranks with Pierre Trudeau as having the sharpest mind among our prime ministers of the last century. It’s a brain that is penetrating, razor-sharp, cold, calculating. Mr. Trudeau’s was more rounded and better-schooled, subject to broader experiences before his political ascendancy. Mr. Harper is essentially a career politician, and his mind, not long on imagination, is more predisposed to political priorities than was the philosopher king’s. But there is no shortage of storage space in that cranium. It is like a warehouse, one in which every issue is fitted, slotted, understood in considerable detail and strategically weighed.

Combine that with his appetite for going for the jugular with every tactic imaginable – he is still running a campaign of lies against NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair on the carbon-tax issue – and you see what the young Trudeau is up against. Mr. Harper will come at him more viciously than other opponents because of the name.

The Liberals were serious in their bid to recruit Mark Carney to run for the leadership, and he actually gave them the go-ahead to put out some feelers. As we learned Monday, there is currently no hope of that: Mr. Carney will be off to the Bank of England for a five-year term as governor. After that, who knows?

Former astronaut Mark Garneau is to enter the Liberal race Wednesday. U.S. Democrats thought they had a promising astronaut candidate in Senator John Glenn in the 1980s, but he disappeared fast. He had a solid but stolid reputation. Too stolid, which is the knock on Mr. Garneau.

The challenge to Mr. Harper will likely be left to Mr. Trudeau. Now that his armour has been dinted, there will be thorough searches by the Conservative hit squad through every inch of his record. It’s likely more ammunition will be found. We’ll see whether he has the steel to withstand.

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