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Four things we've learned about Stephen Harper

Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a campaign speech to supporters during a campaign stop in St. Catharines, Ontario on Wednesday April 27, 2011.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

This election campaign represents Stephen Harper's fourth try at securing a majority government.

He's a complicated man: a politician with the brains and speaking chops to eloquently defend his positions, but one who deliberately limits his exposure to the media.

He's been Canada's Prime Minister for five years and yet there's much about Mr. Harper that remains unexplained. Here's a bit more of what we've gleaned on the campaign trail.

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1. He's still a mystery to Canadians

Politicians normally share about themselves as part of their sales job. Mr. Harper, however, rarely discloses anything on the campaign trail, aside from occasional and brief mentions of his wife, son or daughter. Perhaps the most personal revelation reporters encountered came when a journalist's boom microphone overheard him telling a Windsor cook about his novel approach to pasta. "I had this theory for a while that anything that was a pizza could be a lasagna," the Conservative Leader said. "I made all these kinds of lasagna: Greek lasagna, Hawaiian lasagna. That was when Ben was little."

The only personal side he seems comfortable revealing is his love of rock music. On Good Friday, for instance, he brought TV and still cameras to 24 Sussex Drive to capture him jamming with Ottawa-area band Herringbone, playing Creedence Clearwater Revival.

2. He's more than a tactician

Mr. Harper is introduced at rallies these days as a "trained economist" but he applies himself more in the marketing and psychology departments.

He places a lot of stock in the maxim that voters decide with their hearts and guts rather than their heads, which may explain the Conservative obsession with tough-on-crime bills. (They have drawn up more than 10 still to be passed.) Mr. Harper's signature pitch this campaign - about a Conservative majority being the only thing that can fend off trouble "lapping at our shores" - sounds as if it was penned by a Hollywood film studio: "Look around the world. Debt crisis in Europe. Disaster in the Pacific. Turmoil in the Middle East. Some very serious challenges just south of our border," he tells crowds.

"Amid all of these troubles, this country, Canada, is the closest thing this world has to an island of stability"

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He knows how to target his attacks for maximum effect. For instance, he repeatedly alleges that all opposition parties including the Liberals would introduce a tax on iPods, one of the hottest consumer products today, despite denials from the Liberals. Confronted by the fact the Liberal Party says it has no such plans, he offers to provide citations where rivals have opened the door to such a levy.

"We think the reality is if you look at the size of their spending commitments, they are going to have to pursue all the tax increase they've mused about and more."

3. He doesn't like changing his game plan.

It's been evident for nearly a week that NDP support is surging but Mr. Harper is only now making minor changes to his campaign strategy to address it. The Conservative Leader is not prone to altering course.

He was caught flatfooted in the 2004 campaign because of his resistance to changing tack when the Liberals launched a "bomb the bridges" fear campaign against the Tories in the final week of that race. Back then, he stuck with his plan of a tour of safe Western seats.

This week, the Conservatives have been content to let Canadians tune out election coverage and watch the NHL playoffs and the royal wedding. They felt their attacks on Michael Ignatieff had done their work and that the rest of the campaign would be focused largely on spurring supporters to get out and vote. It's a plan that made more sense before the NDP surge.

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4. He learns from his mistakes

Determined to avoid past campaign errors, Mr. Harper has imposed an iron discipline on himself and his staff that ensures a robotic dedication to message and swift responses to trouble spots in the race.

Politicians by nature love to hold forth, but Mr. Harper has grown remarkably comfortable on the campaign trail with saying only what he'd planned and nothing more.

There are no outbursts against artists and elites attending galas like in 2008. There are no press releases claiming his opponents support child pornography, like in 2004.

When restricted access to his events became a front-page story, instead of doubling down and ignoring the condemnation, as the Tories might have done in the past, staff were instructed to let non-partisan activists into his next rally as long as they promised to behave. His director of communications apologized to one affected Londoner and the controversy disappeared.

Mr. Harper repeatedly declines to rise to the bait on some of what were once his favourite topics, including the judiciary. Asked in Sault Ste. Marie whether he'd use his powers of appointment to make the Supreme Court less activist and intrusive, he redirects the question, talking about how his real concern is placing "strong, independent legal minds" on the bench.

His defining moment

It was March 26, the day after his government fell. Mr. Harper emerged from Rideau Hall on a surprisingly chilly Saturday morning to kick off the election campaign. Indignation in his voice, he framed his central pitch to voters. Despite denials from the Liberals, Mr. Harper insisted the Liberals and NDP were plotting a coalition to oust him from power if he failed to win a majority. "They tried it before," he said, referring to a 2008 attempt to displace him. "Next time, if given the chance, they will do it in a way that no one will be able to stop." One day later he cemented this campaign message, invoking the word "coalition" 21 times in a speech in Brampton, Ont.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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