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Will Harper regret strategy of running not to lose?

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks with the media during a news conference in Paris, Friday June 4, 2010. Harper is on a two day trip to the United Kingdom and France ahead of this months G8 and G20 meetings in Canada.

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

Unlike the last time Canadians went to the polls, Stephen Harper is regularly acknowledging to them that he wants a majority government. But he's unwilling to make an impassioned case for why he wants it, or what he would do with it. Rather than try to capture Canadians' hearts, the Conservative Leader has spent the past five weeks aiming to keep things uneventful at the national level while his party ekes out victories in enough battleground ridings to put it over the top.

The danger of running not to lose, though, is that someone running to win can step in and capture the electorate's imagination. Now, Jack Layton has done just that. And so Mr. Harper is left clinging to a strategy that made sense at the start of this election campaign, but looks much more dubious today.

The Liberal Party of Canada, long the bane of the Conservatives' existence, is in something approaching a death spiral. The Bloc Québécois is suddenly in free fall. But it's Mr. Layton's New Democrats who are reaping all the benefits, soaring to a stunning 30 per cent in the polls. Meanwhile, Mr. Harper's Conservatives are struggling to crack 40 per cent - usually, though not always, a benchmark for winning majorities.

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If Mr. Harper can't get his party to that level of support now, he probably never will. And the odd part is, he's not even really trying to get there.

On the contrary, he has been convinced - through the bitter experiences of Canada's right-of-centre parties over the past two decades - that Conservatives must make do with a low ceiling of support. And so he has become a leader unwilling to make a broad appeal to the electorate.

Mr. Harper was convinced as far back as his Reform Party days that it was folly to seek a big swath of voters. Preston Manning wanted to make a populist pitch that would appeal to Canadians, regardless of their political ideology. Mr. Harper always wanted an incremental approach.

Even Mr. Harper, though, took a while to arrive at his current campaign's level of bloodlessness.

In his earlier days as leader, when a majority government appeared within reach, he would make a relatively impassioned late-campaign pitch for what he would do with it. But that prompted a backlash among voters, causing the Conservatives to fall short.

By 2008, he had stopped talking about a majority at all. But he nevertheless tried to win one by making a mass appeal to Quebec, which had many seats up for grabs. Instead the attempt foundered as the Bloc Québécois capitalized on the Conservatives' arts-funding cuts, which the nationalist party cast as an attack on Quebec identity.

Following that last disappointment, Mr. Harper started aiming primarily for what pollster Nik Nanos refers to as a "smash and grab" majority.

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Rather than trying to usher in a blue wave, even in a key province or two, the Conservatives began trying to cobble together a voting coalition that would give them just enough votes in just enough ridings.

That meant, for instance, targeting certain ethnic minorities that could help them win in the suburbs. It meant solidifying support within the Jewish community, to help win a few urban seats. It meant trying to ensure strong voter turnout among their support base, largely through their law-and-order agenda. And it meant furiously ramping up their ground organization in ridings where they had fallen just short previously.

By the time this campaign started, Mr. Harper's job was largely to stay out of trouble. Rather than inspiring anyone, his boldest aim was to help play the three main opposition parties off against each other, fostering the vote-splitting that would help put the Conservatives over the top.

This battle plan made good sense, a source close to the Conservative campaign says, so long as the Liberals were the Conservatives' main opponent and the regional battle lines remained the same - including the Bloc, rather than the NDP, staying the lead rival in Quebec. But the catch, the source conceded, is that "you always fight the last war."

As it turns out, the NDP's surge has made this campaign more different from the last one than anyone could have anticipated. "The fundamental assumption of this Conservative strategy is that there will only be incremental change," Mr. Nanos says. "It's not as effective when there's a sea change."

Greg Lyle, a pollster and former political strategist, notes that Mr. Harper's "big-picture strategy is coming true." The Conservative Leader's No. 1 goal, he says, has long been to wipe the Liberals off the map. Now, that's happening - something that could well help his party win majorities down the road.

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But for now, it's Mr. Layton who's reaping the benefits. And even if the Conservatives' support isn't going down, there's a danger that non-supporters rallying around an opposition leader could thwart their plans.

A key part of the Conservative strategy is having a higher election-day turnout among their supporters than their opponents. But Mr. Layton's popularity could help change that.

That being the case, the extent to which the Conservatives have alienated the majority of voters while trying to cobble together their voting coalition could prove costly. "Motivating your opponents is a bad idea," Mr. Lyle says. And the various bones that the Conservatives have thrown out to keep their own base motivated could have that effect.

For all that, many Conservatives still believe a majority remains well within their reach. The party believes it has a bedrock vote of about 35 per cent, the source close to the campaign said, and polling shows that it remains among the strongest and most dedicated of any party's.

But if that does prove enough, Mr. Harper might well have the least popular support of any majority prime minister in our history.

He might not mind if that's the case; by some accounts, he would actually prefer a narrow majority, since a larger coalition would be harder to keep together.

But if they had known what is known now, about the volatility of the electorate and the weakness of two of the three opposition parties, it's hard to believe the Conservatives would not have aimed a little higher.

Mr. Harper has accepted that most Canadians will never embrace him. And now, it's too late to change that.

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About the Author
Political Feature Writer

Adam Radwanski is The Globe and Mail's political feature writer. More

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