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Politics David Axelrod’s advice for Trudeau? Head into next election with plan to attack Tory, NDP rivals

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau attends a meeting at the National Cyber Security Centre, in London, England, on April 18, 2018.

Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Former U.S. president Barack Obama’s top strategist is urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to head into the next election with a plan to attack his Conservative and NDP rivals, arguing the positive politics that won the Liberals a first term in 2015 will not be enough to hold on to power next year.

In an interview, David Axelrod said there are many lessons for the Liberal Party in the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign, when Mr. Obama won a second mandate despite being bruised by four years in government.

Mr. Axelrod, who was one of Mr. Obama’s top advisers throughout his political career, will be one of the key speakers at the Liberal national convention that starts in Halifax on Thursday. He will be interviewed on stage by Mr. Trudeau’s principal secretary, Gerald Butts, suggesting the Liberals agree with much of the advice that Mr. Axelrod has to offer to party supporters.

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Mr. Trudeau has often tried to channel Mr. Obama’s winning touch since he entered the Liberal leadership race in 2012 with a promise to engage in positive politics. The Prime Minister participated in a question-and-answer session last February that Mr. Axelrod hosted at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics.

According to Mr. Axelrod, seeking re-election will force Mr. Trudeau to stick with a highly disciplined message – in this case helping the middle class – all the while “setting up a contrast” with his adversaries.

“If the first election was a movement, the second election is more of a choice about the direction of your country,” he said. “In 2012, we positioned our campaign much more as a choice between what we were offering and what the Republican candidate was offering, more so than in 2008 when we positioned ourselves against the entire status quo in politics.”

Working as a senior strategist for Mr. Obama, Mr. Axelrod played a key role in developing political ads in 2012 that painted Republican candidate Mitt Romney as an out-of-touch elitist whose business practices had hurt average American workers.

“I don’t think it necessarily needs to be searingly personal, but you know, the reason there are parties is that there are competing visions of the future,” Mr. Axelrod said. “Trudeau’s vision will be challenged and he has a right to ask exactly what is the offering on the other side and what it would mean for everyday Canadians.”

As liberal democracy and progressive politics are under threat around the world, he said, Mr. Trudeau could build a winning coalition even though many progressive voters have been disappointed by the Liberal record on electoral reform or the environment.

“I expect that some of the same forces that animated [U.S. President] Donald Trump’s support and some of what we are seeing in Europe will visit Canada as well in this next election. So that alone could be a unifying force for the progressive base,” he said.

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About 3,000 Liberal supporters will be convening in Halifax as the government goes through its roughest patch since it came to power, as criticism over the Prime Minister’s trip to India has dominated headlines.

The latest Nanos tracking poll had the Liberals at 41 per cent support, well ahead of the Conservatives at 29 per cent and the NDP at 16 per cent. Still, Mr. Trudeau’s personal numbers have fallen while the number of potential Conservative voters has grown after Mr. Trudeau’s disastrous trip to India.

“In recent weeks, the Liberals have effectively crowded out the bad news with the normal business of being of government. As a result, their numbers have recovered,” said Nik Nanos, president of Nanos Research. “In the long term, the Liberals have to be worried by the fact the numbers are very volatile.”

The next president of the Liberal Party of Canada, Suzanne Cowan, said the key objective of the Halifax convention is to get the electoral machine “fired up” for the vote scheduled to occur on Oct. 21, 2019.

“Elections are won and lost on the ground,” said Ms. Cowan, who is being acclaimed as party president.

She acknowledged the upcoming campaign will be different than the last one, when the Liberals started in third place.

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“The 2019 campaign will be very different, it will be harder,” she said. “We do have a record to showcase for people, but at the same time, it’s something you showcase and you defend.”

National security adviser Daniel Jean says he tried to dispel misinformation over Jaspal Atwal's presence at an event with the Prime Minister. The Tories are calling on Justin Trudeau to withdraw statements he made about the controversy. The Canadian Press
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