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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole continues his election campaign tour in Carp, Ont., on Sept. 13, 2021.

BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole unleashed a lengthy attack on Justin Trudeau on Monday, portraying the Liberal Leader as entitled and selfish. Mr. Trudeau, meanwhile, accused Mr. O’Toole and the Tories of being beholden to the gun lobby and the anti-vaccination movement.

The attacks from both leaders marked a turn to negative campaigning, with just one week remaining before the Sept. 20 vote.

Mr. O’Toole, who had until Monday declared he was running a positive campaign, spent the first 18 minutes of a news conference reading from prepared remarks that referenced the Liberal Leader’s former “partying” days, the SNC-Lavalin scandal and Mr. Trudeau’s disputes with prominent women in his caucus, such as former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould. The Conservative Leader said Mr. Trudeau has abandoned his “sunny ways” persona of 2015, and become “so blinded by his own ambition that he can’t see the rot in his own party.”

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Erin O’Toole is changing Canadian conservatism as we know it

“I am a new Conservative leader,” Mr. O’Toole said. “And the Justin Trudeau of 2015 isn’t the Justin Trudeau of 2021.”

Mr. O’Toole, who was announcing a plan to increase parental and maternity leave benefits, was asked by journalists how his remarks square with his commitment to run a positive campaign. The Conservative Leader said the election is about trust, which he said comes from leading, and from putting the interests of the country first.

“We are in a $600-million election only because Mr. Trudeau thought he could use this crisis for his own political advantage,” Mr. O’Toole said. “Canadians shouldn’t trust Mr. Trudeau to bring our country together, secure our health and economy after COVID.”

Asked whether his tone reflected concern about his electoral chances, Mr. O’Toole did not address the point. “Canadians deserve change. I want them to look at why we’re in this election and vote for change,” he said.

Speaking at a campaign stop in Vancouver, Mr. Trudeau linked Mr. O’Toole with anti-vaccination protests, some of which occurred outside of hospitals throughout the country on Monday.

A reporter asked the Liberal Leader to provide evidence that Conservatives are involved in the protests.

Mr. Trudeau said that Mr. O’Toole’s comments about the Tories being a “big tent” party, coupled with the Conservative Leader’s refusal to make vaccines mandatory for his caucus and for inter-provincial travellers, meant he was “casting to include people who find themselves outside the fringes of the mainstream.”

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The Liberal Leader argued that he was attempting to highlight policy differences with Mr. O’Toole.

“I’m not impugning his character, I’m not saying he doesn’t love his kids. I’m saying he’s wrong about how to ensure jobs and prosperity and a protected country for people in the future,” Mr. Trudeau said.

“I’m going to let him and his proxies in the anti-vaxxer movement, in the gun lobby, in the anti-choice crowd, continue to attack me. Fine. I’m going to continue to stay focused on Canadians.”

Polls suggest the race between the Liberals and Conservatives is statistically tied. Both party leaders are positioning themselves as being the most capable of helping the country recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kate Harrison, a Conservative strategist not directly involved in the campaign who is also vice-chair of the Ottawa public-affairs firm Summa Strategies, said Mr. O’Toole’s speech is indicative of how close the race is.

“I would suspect that this is an attempt to remind those Canadians who are feeling annoyed by the fact that we are having an election at all – and, of course, that voter group who are not fans of Mr. Trudeau – of the number of things he has not handled well over the last number of years,” Ms. Harrison said.

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“In the absence of a ballot question, this has become a bit of a referendum on his leadership.”

Nik Nanos, the founder and chief data scientist of Nanos Research, said in an interview on Monday that Mr. Trudeau’s attacks on Mr. O’Toole need to be a bit sharper than they were in the past, because the Conservative Leader has positioned himself as being more moderate than previous Tory leadership.

“The old strategy of just assuming that people know that there’s a big difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals is not enough,” Mr. Nanos said. “What Trudeau is doing is being a lot more specific on issues like vaccinations and gun control, in order to drive that wedge.”

Mr. Nanos said Mr. O’Toole has done a better job than previous Conservative leaders of appealing to so-called “Blue Liberals.” He added that Mr. O’Toole has been very disciplined in his messaging throughout the campaign. The Conservative pitch to voters would not have had the same impact if Mr. O’Toole had started off negative, Mr. Nanos said.

Mr. O’Toole is not necessarily only trying to get disaffected and disgruntled Liberals to vote Conservative, Mr. Nanos said.

“The second best option would be to get them to stay home, and that’s why he’s sharpening his attacks. But I think the fact that he hasn’t gone hyper negative until the close of the campaign makes it much more impactful for voters.”

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Mr. Nanos said any trend or mistake that happens in the next 72 hours would be hard to reverse before election day.

“It is a political pressure cooker for both of the front runners and their campaigns.”

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