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Election Ringside, March 28: Telegraphed intentions

Election Ringside: A daily exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan, left, and John Duffy

Election Ringside is a daily e-mail exchange for The Globe and Mail between strategists Tom Flanagan and John Duffy. Check in every weekday afternoon during the 2011 federal election campaign for their insights and opinions about the campaign as it unfolds.

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Monday, March 28, 2011, 9:43 a.m. ET To: John Duffy Subject: Election Ringside

Hi John,

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Before we start discussing the day-by-day progress of the campaign, I'd like to touch on the prewrit period because I think it will turn out to be the determining factor in the looming Conservative victory. I'm puzzled as to why Michael Ignatieff announced in December, 2010, that he would not support the government's next budget. He must have known that, given the Conservatives' financial advantage, this was an invitation to Mr. Harper to unleash a prewrit advertising campaign against him. Not surprisingly, that's exactly what Mr. Harper did.

Advertising works through repetition, so it took a few weeks, but by February almost all polls were showing not only a double-digit lead for the Conservatives but very low leadership ratings for Mr. Ignatieff, who was the direct target of the Tories' ads. The Conservatives were already in majority-government territory by the time the writ was dropped.

Maybe I'm missing something, but I can't see any advantage for Mr. Ignatieff in making his announcement. Shouldn't he have played it more cautiously? He could have said, "Mr. Harper is really going to have to show us something if he wants us to support the next budget, but we will look at it before we make up our mind." In the meantime, campaign preparation would be going forward.

What do you think about this? I raise the whole question because I think future historians (maybe you in the next edition of your estimable book Fights of Our Lives) may see this as the turning point of the 2011 election campaign.

From: John Duffy Sent: Monday, March 28, 2011, 11:06 a.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

Good question, Tom. I think Mr. Ignatieff chose to telegraph his intentions back in December mainly in order to build support in his caucus and party for the decision to oppose the budget. As you will recall from your time in opposition, the wires of party discipline are loose and thin when unconnected to power; it takes a lot of time and communication to get a party to agree to take down a government. The NDP under Jack Layton and the BQ under Gilles Duceppe are compact units, guided by long-serving leaders who can move their parties fairly crisply; in the somewhat sprawling Liberal Party, rookie Ignatieff has to do his leading more openly.

On the flip side, I also don't think that any cageyness on Mr. Ignatieff's part would have precluded the Conservative prewrit advertising barrage. My sense is that Mr. Harper's desire for an election around this budget became paramount some time ago. A massive wave of prewrit negative advertising was inevitable, as Liberals have known all along. So I can't really subscribe to a theory that Ignatieff made a misstep here. The prewrit Tory negative-ad assault is just one more hill in the mountain range the Liberals knew they'd have to scale in any election scenario.

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What shifted in the final weeks before last Friday is of more interest to me. I think that the Liberals' gnawing away at the abuse-of-power issues - something that really began in earnest in February - does actually aim at a genuine vulnerability of Mr. Harper's. The sense that abuse-of-power is the Achilles heel of the Conservatives is what has carried the Liberal Party into bringing the government down at this time. The most interesting part of the campaign for me so far is watching just how much Harper is willing to risk in order to keep the election off that channel. In your view, how long does he stay on the coalition issue?

From: Tom Flanagan Sent: Monday, March 28, 2011, 12:31 p.m. ET To: John Duffy

Interesting explanation, John. I hope you're right. It's more subtle than my original thought, namely that Mr. Ignatieff doesn't learn from history. (Remember how he announced in fall, 2009, that he would defeat the government, and what happened then.)

We'll see whether the abuse-of-power theme has any traction with the electorate. So far, it hasn't shown any. I think Mr. Harper will continue to refer to the coalition issue because it's a basic part of the Conservative campaign narrative, but I don't think he will concentrate on it to the exclusion of all else. Indeed, there's supposed to be a policy announcement today. I think the Conservatives are going back to the 2006 model of daily policy announcements, which worked well at the time. There wasn't much policy in their 2008 campaign, and I think they now realize they need a greater policy emphasis.

From: John Duffy Sent: Monday, March 28, 2011, 2:08 p.m. ET To: Tom Flanagan

I can see it now. Red-tinted screen. Scary-politician music. "Michael Ignatieff: he didn't learn all that history ... for you."

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Seriously, though - we'll see how the Liberal abuse-of-power theme goes over with the electorate. It takes time and, as you pointed out this morning, repetition for a message to sink in with a large and busy audience. The Grits should stick with that theme, and with their argument that the government's priorities are misplaced towards "jets and jails" (I wish I'd thought of that one) instead of the needs of struggling middle-class families.

A propos of which, both the Conservatives and the Liberals are indeed migrating towards public policy issues today. Your fellow has promised enhanced permissibility of income splitting ... to be delivered in five years. Mine has made the point that five years is an awfully long way away. More important, Mr. Ignatieff is repeating his "jets and jails" theme as part of the response. That's how it's done - repetition, repetition, repetition.

Let's repeat, Tom, or at least continue, our conversation tomorrow.

Tom Flanagan is professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former Conservative campaign manager. John Duffy is founder of StrategyCorp and a former adviser to prime minister Paul Martin.

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