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Politics Liberals may have to play the race card to cut into Tories’ lead

Federal politics is likely to get very ugly in the months ahead.

The latest polls show the Liberals falling dangerously far behind the Conservatives. The Grits must find ways to bring their numbers up and Tory numbers down. Part of their strategy will include accusing the Conservatives of racial intolerance, a charge to which Andrew Scheer has made his party vulnerable.

There is nothing uglier than playing the race card. But the Liberals have little choice. Ipsos released a poll Thursday that has them trailing the Conservatives by 10 points, with the Liberals fighting the NDP for second place in Ontario and British Columbia.

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Mr. Trudeau is now viewed much more negatively than the other major party leaders. According to an Angus Reid poll that also came out Thursday, 47 per cent of voters now “strongly disapprove” of the performance of the Prime Minister. Only 9 per cent strongly approve.

The reason, clearly, was the resignation of former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould and fellow cabinet minister Jane Philpott to protest what Ms. Wilson-Raybould alleged was pressure from Mr. Trudeau and his advisers to reach a deferred-prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin, which has been charged with bribery and fraud.

The controversy “really hits at the heart of Trudeau’s governing proposition, which is ‘I will do politics differently,' ” said John Duffy, a management and communications consultant with close ties to the Liberal Party. The promise to conduct politics differently “has been a huge part of what the Trudeau government has offered, and largely delivered, and it’s terribly important,” he said in an interview.

The Liberals were a third-place party when Mr. Trudeau won the leadership. He carried them to power in 2015 single-handedly, and has been the face of the party ever since. Now he is paying the price.

“They put Trudeau so far out as the face of the government,” that any weakness damages the Liberal brand “more so than with a normal party,” said Amanda Galbraith, a principal at the public-affairs firm Navigator. Ms. Galbraith was director of communications to Toronto Mayor John Tory and served in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

With almost seven months until the next election, the Liberals have time to recover, if they start doing things differently.

Step 1 “is to get this SNC issue off the front page every day,” said Ms. Galbraith. That could mean revoking solicitor-client privilege and permitting Ms. Wilson-Raybould to speak about events surrounding the cabinet shuffle that removed her from the office of attorney-general. Any political damage that resulted would be preferable to the party’s current unending agony.

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Step 2 would centre on a big nationwide crusade over something like a pharmacare plan, to woo back disaffected Liberals.

Step 3 must focus on doing as much damage as possible to Mr. Scheer. That will mean accusing him of plans to cut Liberal spending programs and of having no interest in combatting global warming.

But it will also include accusing the Conservatives of tolerating racists within the party.

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We live in a world in which the President of the United States openly promotes intolerance toward minorities. In Canada, Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party derides “extreme multiculturalism.”

Mr. Scheer appears spooked by the PPC. In condemning the terrorist attacks in New Zealand, he initially avoided using the words “Muslim” or “mosque.” He spoke at a rally where alt-right protesters were present, though not in the majority. The Conservatives relentlessly attacked the Liberals over migrants who cross the Canada-U.S. border at unofficial entry points.

While stressing that the Liberal message must remain essentially positive, Mr. Duffy added that the Conservative coalition “includes far too many people who really represent profoundly negative points of view.” Do not expect the Liberals to shy away from pointing this out.

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If middle-class immigrant voters conclude that Mr. Scheer’s party is hostile to them, then Mr. Trudeau is likely to win the October general election, scandals notwithstanding.

However, if those same voters decide the Conservatives are not intolerant, that they will do a better job of managing the economy, and that the Liberal Leader can no longer be trusted, then tough times await the Grits.

The question is how far the Liberals are willing to go to poison the Conservative brand. The answer to that question will decide how ugly this election gets.

(The Ipsos online poll had a sample of 1,002 and is considered accurate to within plus or minus 3.5 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Angus Reid polled 5,807 people online, a sample that would carry a margin of error of plus or minus two percentage points, 19 times out of 20.)

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