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Stephen Harper: nasty, brutish - and competent

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks at campaign rally in Beaupre, Que, on April 14, 2011.


Mean, petty, vindictive, arrogant, ruthless, tight-lipped. Those are all words that the legions who dislike Stephen Harper would pick to describe the Conservative Leader, and likely some of the nicest, at that.

Here's one more: competent.

Whatever his perceived flaws, most of his critics would credit Mr. Harper with a certain modicum of managerial ability. In fact, that's rather the reason he drives them to sputtering distraction. A bumbling Stephen Harper wouldn't be of much concern to left-of-centre voters.

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So, it's not surprising that Mr. Harper has held a consistent edge on the question of competence in the Nanos leadership index, nor it is it a shock that his edge has grown substantially in the wake of the debates.

What is surprising - and at a guess, demoralizing for the Liberals, particularly - are the gains that Mr. Harper has made on trust and, of all things, his vision for Canada.

Mr. Ignatieff's best zinger from the English-language debate (and one the Liberal war room busily spun the next day) was a retort to Mr. Harper's pitch for a majority: "You haven't earned the trust of the Canadian people because you don't trust the Canadian people."

It's a great line, and it does rather capture the dynamics of the 2004, 2006, and 2008 campaigns. But this time out, it looks as if Mr. Harper is winning over a plurality of the population. According to the Nanos poll, 34.7 per cent of Canadians described Mr. Harper as the most trustworthy federal leader, a rise of more than five percentage points, and far ahead of second-place Jack Layton, with 21.3 per cent. Michael Ignatieff saw a slight improvement in his score, but Mr. Harper has widened the trust gap.

Assuming that the trends in the Nanos poll hold, that is a huge problem for Mr. Ignatieff as he attempts to make the case that the Harper government is a threat to Canadian democracy. The danger is not only that he might not be believed, but that the criticism will rebound, with Canadians instead buying into Mr. Harper's contention that the contempt of Parliament motion was crass political opportunism.

Even more worrying, for the Liberals, is Mr. Harper's edge on the question of who has the best vision for Canada. Mr. Harper has jumped 10 percentage points on that metric since the English-language debates; his 40-per-cent ranking is double that of Jack Layton, with third-place Michael Ignatieff edging up to 18.9 per cent.

Two notes of caution here. First, two in five Canadians think Mr. Harper has the best vision; presumably a larger number would be comfortable with his proposals, even if it wasn't necessarily their preference. So an assumption that 60 per cent of Canadians don't like Mr. Harper's agenda is likely wrong. Second, Mr. Harper's lead on trust, competence and vision don't equate to liking. At a guess, Mr. Harper has the respect of a growing number of Canadians, not their affection.

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Still, his surging leadership score could give the Conservatives considerable room to grow from their current hover-point of just below 40 per cent in party support. (Nik Nanos says, however, that there could be a glass-ceiling effect, in which Canadians view Mr. Harper as the superior leader but refuse to vote for him anyway. Only the end of the campaign will render a definitive verdict, he says.)

The final piece of bad news for the Liberals is this: It's not likely that they can do much at this point to dent Mr. Harper's leadership image. Typically, Mr. Nanos says, a drop in the leadership score comes from self-inflicted wounds.

But, there is some cause for Liberal optimism. The home stretch of the campaign beckons, and that has typically been when candidates, including Mr. Harper, start taking careful aim at their feet. In 2004, Tory accusations that the Liberals were soft on child porn painted Mr. Harper as a sour ideologue, and stalled Conservative momentum.

That kind of mistake isn't beyond Mr. Harper in 2011 - witness his angry speech at the start of the campaign. His numbers have risen, in part because his temper was on ice during the debates, despite ample provocation.

The Liberals had best hope that crankiness overwhelms Mr. Harper in the back half of the campaign; otherwise those four in 10 Canadians (at least) are going to be quite delighted in seeing the Conservative vision of Canada come into focus, starting May 3.

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