ELECTION FOCUS ?06 – Trying for 5 wins in a row looks like an impossible task

Hockey teams sometimes achieve it, but governments seldom accomplish what the Liberal party is hoping for on January 23 ? a fifth straight electoral victory.

This week?s debates gave each leader the opportunity to spell out his vision and appeal to the country for support. If the debate had been a hockey game, I would have given Paul Martin credit for the most shots on goal and Jack Layton marks for playing the best defensive game. But it was Stephen Harper who scored the most goals. Gilles Duceppe was the extra man on the ice who didn?t belong in the game.

The campaign has barely more than a week to run. With the polls showing support growing for the Conservatives, it will take the equivalent of an overtime shoot-out for the Prime Minister to pull off a victory.

Monday?s English debate was barely underway when Mr. Martin began shooting wildly down the ice. He accused Mr. Harper of planning to take away tax cuts and cancel the Liberals? plans for national child care plan. Then he was on to ten-year old speeches in which Mr. Harper had lauded the conservative right in the U.S. as a model for politicians here.

?The United States is our neighbor but it?s not our nation,? he declared, adding there?s a ?deep chasm? between him and the Conservative leader on values.

The most emotional moment came when Mr. Martin shot back against the insistent attacks coming from the other leaders. ?Enough?s enough,? he said. ?We?ve got to have a more intelligent debate.? He was accusing his rivals of high sticking.

The PM?s biggest problem in the debate may have been in trying to cover too much territory. He flailed at the Tories and the Bloc, worked in his new idea about repealing Ottawa?s power to override the Charter of Rights, and apologized again for the sponsorship scandal.

?It was a disgraceful period,? he admitted. But the PM reminded viewers he?d appointed Judge Gomery — ?who exonerated all the members of my government? ? and that he turned over the file to the RCMP.

Stephen Harper came off as the warmest, most poised, and most focused of the leaders. If anything, his performance was almost too polished. He?s been working hard to project a warmer image, although elements of his personality ? that funny little, almost smirky smile ? still grate with some people.

In the first report in this series I posed the question: Will the length of the campaign ? extended because of Christmas to eight weeks rather than the usual five ? make a difference? It?s now clear the longer campaign has been immensely helpful to the Conservative party.

The Liberals could still come back, but it?s unlikely they can play the fear card against Mr. Harper as effectively as they did in 2004. Then, the Conservatives had just come off the Alliance-PC merger, had no real platform, and their leader had little time to build trust with voters.

The prospect of a Conservative victory pushed many NDP voters into voting Liberal as a way of stopping Mr. Harper. This time, according to NDP veteran Janice McKinnon, a former Saskatchewan finance minister, ?the Liberals have much less capacity to lure away NDP votes.?

While Mr. Harper?s strategy has been to move his party to the ?mushy middle? and convince skeptical voters there?s nothing scary about his policies, Prime Minister Martin has faced a more difficult challenge. He has not much more than a week in which to restore trust in the Liberals, and restoring trust that?s been lost is always more difficult than building trust in the first place.

It?s rare that voters turn out a government in prosperous times. And this may be where the Liberals have missed the boat, by not reminding Canadians they?ve ?never had it so good? ? the unemployment rate cut in half, four million more jobs, cuts in income taxes, low interest rates that have made it possible for thousands to become home-owners, and a rising Canadian dollar.

As Bill Clinton said in his successful 1992 run, ?It?s the economy, stupid.?

If the Liberals are to save their minority, they?ve got to mount a single, coherent message. They need to appeal to people?s pocketbooks by reminding them how prosperous Canada has been the past 12 years, and how Stephen Harper?s ?fend for yourself? economic policies could threaten all of that. Mr. Martin tried to do that in the debates. The negative ads the Liberals are running this week don?t do that, but they do raise fears about Mr. Harper. We?ll know in a week if they?re working.

Ray Argyle is the author of Turning Points: The Campaigns that Changed Canada. He can be reached at author@turningpoints.info.