While media do their best to trip Harper up, he's landing on his feet

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
The Gazette, Monday, April 11, 2011

In this election, there are two campaigns: the one in the bubble and the one on the ground. The one in the bubble is just noise; the one on the ground is fundamental.

Stephen Harper is losing the campaign in the bubble, but in the walk-up to this week's leaders' debates, he is holding his own on the ground.

He's running a classic front-runner's campaign, trying to avoid unforced errors, while the media on his plane do their best to trip him up.

They whine about rope lines, whinge about access, and complain about staged photo ops. They also behave like children in need of adult supervision, making all kinds of rude noises.

On Harper's tour last week, the CBC's Terry Milewski actually asked him if he was a chicken and a coward for dodging a one-on-one debate with Michael Ignatieff. Journalism is the only profession, my former wife used to say, in which inappropriate behaviour is not only tolerated, but encouraged.

There's a new element in the bubble in this campaign: Twitter. If you didn't have a job, or a family, or a life, you could spend your whole day reading tweets from leaders and reporters inside the bubble.

None of this noise from the bubble resonates on the ground, for two reasons. First, it's not fundamental to voters' lives; and second, they're not yet engaged in the campaign. The debates are the one moment when they'll pay attention.

In all of this, there are distinct echoes of the 1988 campaign. In Brian Mulroney's bubble, the main story on the news one night was a media rope line and stanchions at a factory in Brampton, Ont., put there by the advance team so the media could have a cleaner shot. They whined about that, about access, about everything.

Nothing changed until the debates, when John Turner landed a haymaker, telling Mulroney he had "sold us out" on free trade with the United States.

Turner, like Michael Ignatieff in this campaign, had already exceeded expectations just by showing up. But in a single sound bite, he also defined the ballot question of a one-issue campaign. The rest of the 1988 campaign was a roller-coaster ride, totally authentic.

A trio of hecklers actually followed Mulroney around from one event to the next, and one day in Victoria, he invited them to debate him after a rally. It was a major turning point in the campaign, in which Mulroney proved that he knew what he was talking about. But at another level, the video images made a point about democracy, in which dissenters got a debate with a prime minister.

There was a moment like that in Hamilton, Ont., last Thursday, when the Conservatives relented in their stupid policy of controlled access to Harper's events, and allowed a group of young voters into his rally. Afterward, he met with them. And there was even a heckler from the NDP. Why would this surprise anyone in Hamilton? Harper handled it well, and the moment livened up his event. It woke him up, and broke him out of the bubble.

Which brings us to the debates. As in 1988, they represent the Liberal leader's best, and perhaps only, chance of transforming a losing campaign into a competitive election.

Ignatieff does not have to worry about managing expectations, and he is almost certain to exceed them. When you run behind "none of the above" on the bestprime-minister question, there's nowhere to go but up. But Ignatieff is a seasoned television performer from his years at the BBC in London, and he's also no stranger to debates from his years at Harvard.

The format for the debates allows for one-on-one exchanges among the four leaders. But the only one that matters in Tuesday's English-language debate is the six minutes between Harper and Ignatieff. The media are always looking for a knockout, and Iggy kind of needs one.

But he doesn't have what Turner had going for him - a one-issue election. There is no single issue in this campaign, except perhaps the election itself. Voters are annoyed by it, know the cost of it, and dread the prospect of doing this all over again in a year or so.

And there's the emerging ballot question: majority or minority?

 
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