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Senator Doug Finley gives an in his Parliament Hill office on Feb. 24, 2011.

Dave Chan/dave chan The Globe and Mail

This will not be a great weekend for Doug Finley.

A couple of days ago, the Conservative Senator sat down and discussed his fight with colon cancer, nicotine - and the genius of political attack ads. On Friday, just as he was to begin his third round of chemo, it became apparent he had another fight on his hands.

Elections Canada has charged him and three other prominent Harper Conservatives with allegedly violating federal law in connection with more than $1-million in expenses from the 2006 election campaign. The charges stem from the so-called in-and-out financing scheme, which the elections watchdog alleges skirted an $18.3-million spending cap. The Tories say the arrangement was legal.

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Around political Ottawa, the Senator is a feared backroom operator. He has a reputation as an aggressive strategist who lives for campaigns. He fights hard; he has been called "Harper's pit bull."

As manager of the Conservative 2006 and 2008 national campaigns, Mr. Finley was the architect of the back-to-back Harper victories. For his good works, he was rewarded with an appointment to the Senate in 2009.

But the cancer diagnosis last fall sidelined him.

"I put it off, way, way, way too long, knowing something was wrong," the Scotsman says in his distinctive brogue. He says he was possessed of that "great male optimism" in which he "always figured it would clear itself." It took his wife, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley, finally to "frog march" him to his family doctor.

"It would have been nicer if we'd have got it even earlier," he says now.

Last November, he underwent nearly 11 hours of surgery. He says the cancer was "pretty well eradicated." Still, he has chosen to undergo 12 rounds of "optional chemotherapy" that he says will improve his chances of stopping the cancer from recurring.

He lost 40 pounds, and although he hasn't quit smoking, he is down to 10 cigarettes a day from about 40. His wife is a smoker, so quitting is made that much more difficult.

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Mr. Finley's diagnosis, meanwhile, was also a profound setback for Stephen Harper. After several conversations with the Prime Minister late last year and even last month, it was decided he could not manage a campaign that could come as early as the spring.

"It's a question of reliability," he says, noting that managing a campaign requires being on the job "24/7."

Instead, he has been given the title of "campaign chairman emeritus" and has an "open" seat at the table.

"I will still be engaged," he says. "You're not going to get rid of an old warhorse."

Indeed, the old warhorse is observing the political scene very closely - and from a great vantage point.

He occupies Sir John A. Macdonald's "working office" in the East Block; it is called the "Church" because of its two magnificent stained glass windows.

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"From one Scotsman to another," he jokes.

Like all good Conservatives, Mr. Finley says he doesn't want an election right now - but, if one were to take place, say this spring, he believes his party can win a majority.

Recent polls are indicating that's a possibility. This, he believes, is a result of voters firming up their intentions as they begin to think an election is not far off.

More than that, however, it's because of the attack ads - the new suite of anti-Ignatieff ads, unleashed several weeks ago. Mr. Finley was involved in their development and is a firm believer in their effectiveness.

Typically, ads begin to have an impact three weeks after release - but only if they are in "huge rotation," he says. This is exactly what the Conservatives have done, playing them during prime time and big events, such as the Grammy Awards and the Super Bowl.

For all those who say that negative ads turn off voters, Mr. Finley responds: "Politics is an adversarial business. Kellogg's doesn't make their money by telling everybody General Foods are a great product."

Although the ads are aimed at the Conservative base, they are also meant to compel "the switchers," he says - the Red Tories and so-called Blue Liberals - who see the Harper Conservatives adopt a more central position.

"They've tended to start to move to us," says Mr. Finley. "And I think the next election will significantly underscore this …"

Mr. Finley has not seen any of the ads. The only live television he watches is his beloved Manchester United and Glasgow Celtics.

Notoriously private, meanwhile, Mr. Finley was never one to give interviews. Now that he's in the Senate, he says he felt more free to speak. He even launched a Twitter account on Thursday.

By Friday, however, he was back to form. He would not comment on the charges.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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