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opinion

David McLaughlin

David McLaughlin is a former Conservative party chief of staff at the federal and provincial levels.

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You get the election you get, not the one you want.

This aphorism nicely sums up the dilemmas facing each of the parties as they approach the campaign endgame.

Opening day two months ago is but a whispery memory to voters today. Each leader was criticized for something that day: Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's Machiavellian long-election call and stay-the-course offer to voters; Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's trip to Vancouver, missing the first round of media stories, doing it his way instead; and NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's refusal to take media questions in favour of maintaining a safe, friendly, stick-to-the-message persona for voters to grow comfortable with.

These represented each leader's take on his best strategic bet. Remarkably, they have persisted for more than 60 days now – on the outside. But inside the campaigns, a different dynamic has been occurring, one that sets the stage for what lies ahead.

The Conservatives had the rockiest first month getting their message out, mostly because they got sideswiped repeatedly by the Mike Duffy trial, but also because their stay-the-course economic message was passive and flat – too much about the past and not enough about the future.

They rebooted, subtly but meaningfully. The most visible signs were the "Protect the Economy" signs that popped up at an Ottawa rally in early September – they gave their core economic message a more active focus that nicely tied Conservative results with opposition risk. A new series of ads showing Mr. Harper and highlighting specific tax-policy benefits to kitchen-table voters appeared. It's working.

Defying expectations, the underdog Liberals showcased Mr. Trudeau everywhere all the time. With Mr. Mulcair's NDP planting itself on the centre-left ground, the Liberals ran to his left courting voters who are undecided and NDP supporters who are "pro-change" with spending and deficit policies more likely to come from the NDP than the Liberals. He took on the "just not ready" meme head-on. It's working, too.

Mr. Mulcair presented himself as the candidate for safe, centrist change you could trust. His signature policy became balanced budgets, not winsome new spending. This was not your father's NDP by any measure. He would take as much risk out of the equation for voters in a bet that this would be a change election and he and his party would be the safe harbour that Canadians were seeking. It coloured Mr. Mulcair's debate persona and performance. It's not working.

Mr. Mulcair's momentum is ebbing. Mr. Harper's is growing. Mr. Trudeau's is peaking.

This is where the leaders find themselves. Here's what they must do now.

Mr. Mulcair's low-risk strategy is proving high-risk instead. Blindsided by the power of the niqab ploy in Quebec, he is shedding votes to both the Bloc Québécois and the Conservatives. Without his Quebec base, he winds up third. A bold move to recapture the change narrative and stop vote-bleeding to the Liberals, particularly in Ontario, is essential.

Mr. Trudeau has run a good, aggressive campaign. High risk has paid off in terms of "share of voice" in debates and media coverage. He is still hurt by the twin charges of "inexperienced" and "unready." His attractive policy offers for his accessible electorate need to be presented in a broader "ready to act" package. He needs to make change real to voters for a party with just three dozen seats, because the Liberals will have to quadruple their seats in the House of Commons to have any chance of forming government. Voters are listening, but are not yet sold.

Mr. Harper's performance has not just steadied, but improved. At this point, though, it remains a minority government outcome at best for the Conservatives. His waving of the niqab distracts the Liberals and NDP from pushing the "change" button, Mr. Harper's weak link. The research advice that said keep the focus on Mr. Trudeau, not Mr. Mulcair, is proving prescient in the face of the Liberal surge. More of the same campaign, if not more of the same message, lies ahead. He wins by keeping the others down.

The Conservatives are short of a majority. The Liberals are short of a minority. And the NDP is short of both. This is the election with which each now has to contend.

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