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lawrence martin

It's been a while but Conservatives can finally smell blood. They've got the Grits on the run. Back-to-back come Justin Trudeau's cash-for-access imbroglio and his Fidel follies.

The latter even clanged alarm bells outside the country. In the United States nothing brings the paleos snorting from the undergrowth quite like nice words about a Communist dictator. On hearing the Prime Minister's wrongheaded testimonial, little Marco Rubio was apoplectic. Ted Cruz almost had a seizure.

Here the so-called public outcry was an 80 per cent right-wing outcry. That eases concerns for the governing party. As for the careful-who-ya-schmooze-with brouhaha, it has a ways to go (and could get there) before making it beyond the realm of scandalette.

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But Liberals thinking their blunders amount only to paper cuts might well end up with deep lacerations. For more than a year, Conservatives have had to watch as Justin Trudeau performed beyond expectations. But there are signs the public mood is shifting. The Liberals dropped a few notches in an Ekos poll last week and the bad new tidings could move the Tories within striking range. In Ottawa circles, the belief has been that the Conservatives need to play the long game, that unless Mr. Trudeau is hit by a meteor, he is virtually guaranteed a second term. It's fiction.

There's an inevitability to the rhythms of politics. You can only stay up for so long. In the modern era, all our newly elected majority governments have hit the skids at some point during their first term and become very vulnerable. John Diefenbaker's majority crashed and barely survived. Same with Pierre Trudeau's. Brian Mulroney was on the ropes after winning a gigantic majority. Stephen Harper won his first majority in 2011 and frittered it away. Mr. Trudeau could be defeated as well.

Media feeding frenzies take their toll. Mr. Trudeau got it wrong on Mr. Castro with his first commentary. He got it right on day two when in answer to a question on whether Mr. Castro was a dictator, he said "yes." The problem was that the do-over didn't make it into many of the media commentaries. To say "oh by the way, he did describe him as a dictator" would have seriously subtracted from the floggings.

It's of some interest to recall that Canadians didn't seem to mind too much when Jean Chrétien and Pierre Trudeau gave Mr. Castro comparatively mild treatment. The press wasn't in high dudgeon like today. But as I have noted before, our media was more liberal in those times. There was no giant conservative chain like Postmedia, which is the preponderant print voice in many of the country's big cities and which fields conservative commentators in greater number than progressives. Today the right side has the balance of power in the print media and has gained ground at the CBC where a conservative has been appointed to head up its new on-line commentary service.

The other rhubarb, the cash-for-access story, is one that stings because although it's an age-old political practice it contravenes the clearly worded pledge Mr. Trudeau made before coming to power. To wit: "There should be no preferential access or appearance of preferential access accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties."

There is as yet no direct evidence of kickbacks or quid pro quos in what the PM and his ministers have done. On the question of openness and integrity, this government has shown more of it than their predecessors, who last we looked were embroiled in a cover-up scandal on Senate expenses that saw them trying to falsify a Senate report, misleading the House of Commons and offering testimony at the trial of Mike Duffy that was risible.

That said, the cash-for-access story could have legs, lots of them. Examples keep popping up. Liberals' heads keep popping down. The Conservatives have them on the defensive and with Mr. Trudeau facing difficult decisions on upcoming nettlesome files, they are likely to keep them there.