New Democrat MPs profess to be unfazed by the popularity of the Liberals and their magnetic leader, Justin Trudeau, but NDP sights will be trained on Mr. Trudeau when Parliament returns for the fall sitting.
It is the NDP's obligation to highlight the weaknesses of the competition, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair – who rarely mentions Mr. Trudeau's name in public – said Tuesday after emerging from a caucus retreat in Saskatoon.
"We will talk about the policies of the other party, we'll talk about the failings of the other party," he said when asked how he plans to combat the attention and support that has been flowing to the Liberals since Mr. Trudeau became leader in April.
"It's a push and a pull. We're trying to pull people towards us, that's the positive side," said Mr. Mulcair. "We're also trying to say what inadequacies are of the policies or the background or the past performance of the [other] party."
The NDP, which captured second place in the 2011 election and was topping the polls a year ago, has dropped to third place behind the Conservatives and the Liberals while Mr. Trudeau has surged to the front. That has prompted some New Democrats to express private concern about the ability of Mr. Mulcair and his team to sell the NDP brand.
The NDP Leader still has time to turn things around before the 2015 election – but the effort would have to start this fall with skillfully targeted messaging both inside and outside the House of Commons. And NDP insiders say it is likely that the party will run advertising before the 2015 election campaign, perhaps aimed at directly Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals.
Doing so would represent no divergence from past practices, they said. In 2009, for instance, a series of NDP radio spots targeted then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff for supporting the Conservative budget. And before the 2011 vote, ads called out Mr. Ignatieff for having the worst attendance record in the House of Commons. An ad buy would also not drain the NDP of its resources, party strategists say. The per-vote subsidy that has bolstered the bank accounts of all parties since 2004 is being phased out, but the New Democrats' fundraising efforts are working better than at any time in their history. So it's not a matter of finding the money but deciding how best to spend it, they said.
On the other hand, the NDP has done well with advertising that is more humorous than hostile. During the last election, for instance, television ads in Quebec that depicted a hamster running a treadmill and dogs barking – images that were meant to depict the status quo of Parliament under Liberals and Conservatives – contributed to the NDP success in that province.
And there is significant squeamishness among NDP MPs for the kind of ads run by the Conservatives that have been aimed at perceived personality flaws of various Liberal leaders.
Mr. Mulcair said he has never been a member of a party that resorted to personal attacks.
To point out that Michael Ignatieff "was absent from the House a whole bunch of times, that's an objective fact, it's something that's open to political debate," he told reporters. That's not the same thing as the "visceral, personal" attacks launched at Liberal leaders by the Conservatives, he said.
Members of his caucus agreed.
Ottawa MP Paul Dewar, who ran against Mr. Mulcair for the party leadership, said it is always fair to highlight policy differences between parties. "Some people call it attack ads," Mr. Dewar said. "I would call it distinguishing yourself from the others."
NDP House Leader Nathan Cullen said Liberals have gone after New Democrats so it is only reasonable that New Democrats would go after Liberals. If a Liberal Leader says something stupid, Mr. Cullen said, there is no reason for the New Democrats to give him a free pass.
The main focus of the New Democrats until the next election will be the Conservative government, Mr. Cullen said. But "what we're vying for is running the country," he said, "and someone shouldn't be allowed to get away with saying things that are just wrong or bad ideas."