The danger of peaking too soon

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by L. IAN MacDONALD
National Post, Friday, September 19, 2008

Stephen Harper's campaign schedule is all about consolidating Conservative gains in Quebec.

The gains were apparent in yesterday's Leger Marketing poll of the province: Conservatives 34%, Bloc Quebecois 32%, Liberals 20%, NDP 9%. In the poll of 1,000 Quebecers, taken between Sept. 12 and 16, the Liberals have fallen to third place in the Montreal region, the Bloc has fallen out of first place for the first time since the 1993 election, and the Conservatives have moved into first place for the first time since the free trade campaign of 1988.

Harper's tour schedule echoes the poll numbers. In the first two weeks of the campaign, he's spent part of five days in Quebec. All but one of the events have been in competitive ridings and battleground regions off the island of Montreal. In most of these areas, the race is between the Tories and the Bloc.

In the nationalist heartland of the Saguenay, the Conservatives hold two seats and have their eyes on the third one. Harper was there on Wednesday night, promising to formalize what has always been accepted practice -- that the CRTC chairmanship would alternate between English and French-speaking Canadians. Cost to taxpayers: Zero. The benefit to the Conservatives was apparent in the headline in yesterday's Journal de Montreal: "The big seduction: a bigger place for francophones on the CRTC."

Yesterday, Harper began his day in Trois-Rivieres on the North Shore, before crossing the St. Lawrence to Drummondville on the South Shore. Today it's Magog and Cowansville in the Eastern Townships, with a stop at Vaudreuil-Solanges, off the western end of Montreal, where Michael Fortier is trying to move from the Senate to the House.

Trois-Rivieres is one riding on the North Shore that the Conservatives are favoured to win from the Bloc. Another is St. Maurice, home of le p'tit gars de Shawinigan, Jean Chretien. The Liberals are nowhere in the town Chretien made famous. In Shawinigan the other day, said one visitor from Montreal, "the only red sign was a stop sign."

Everywhere Harper goes in Quebec, the message is the same. The Conservatives are delivering the goods for Quebec, while the Bloc isn't.

Harper's stump speech reinforces the theme of a Conservative 30-second spot, "Ce n'est pas le Bloc." It's a slick ad, depicting four fast-moving scenes, from farmers to suburbanites, saying: "In Ottawa, one party has recognized the Quebecois nation, and it's not the Bloc. One party has cleaned up in attacking corruption, and it's not the Bloc. One party has solved the fiscal imbalance, and it's not the Bloc. One party is doing things for families, and it's not the Bloc."

The Conservatives have bought saturation coverage for this ad, and for another 60-second spot in which Harper and his Quebec ministers, sitting around a breakfast table at Harrington Lake, are discussing all they've done for Quebec, while the Bloc does nothing.

The imagery of the longer spot is unmistakable and powerful in Quebec. They are sitting around la table de la famille, as Quebecers will be just before the vote over Thanksgiving weekend. And Harper has changed roles from the last campaign. In 2006, he was an outsider from Alberta, offering la main tendue, the outstretched hand, to Quebec. In 2008, as prime minister, he is being positioned as the head of the family.

But there's a downside looming for the Conservatives in Julie Couillard's kiss-and-tell memoir, whose publication date has been moved up from Oct. 15, the day after the election, to Oct. 6, a week before. The Conservatives are also getting pounded on their cuts to cultural programs. And the stupid comments of Harper's agriculture minister, Gerry Ritz, tossed off in a conference call on the listeriosis food crisis, threw Harper seriously off-message yesterday.

Even the good poll numbers may have come too soon for Harper, as they underscore Gilles Duceppe's desperate message about the dangers of a Conservative majority. The danger for the Conservatives in Quebec may, quite simply, be a question of peaking too soon.

 
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