Dion stumbles

Conservatives and NDP are flying high while the Liberals are left on the bus on the ground

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The Gazette, Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A campaign launch is all about the leader's tour, and it's supposed to convey two messages - momentum and competence.

In the rollout phase of this campaign, it's advantage Stephen Harper, with a nod to Jack Layton. As for Stéphane Dion and the Liberal campaign, it is apparently still in the garage.

Harper made a statement with his campaign launch on Sunday. After the requisite call on the governor-general, followed by a statement and press conference in the rose garden of Rideau Hall, he got on his plane and flew to Quebec City, Ground Zero of the Conservatives' ambitions to graduate from minority to majority government.

Harper was making a deliberate show of strength in an important market, area-code 418, where the Conservatives are poised to sweep Quebec City and be very competitive with the Bloc Québécois in the rest of eastern Quebec, a region where the Liberals are not even in the game.

Then Harper got back on his plane and flew to Vancouver, using the time change to his advantage and getting in another opening-day event on the West Coast in the key battleground of the lower British Columbia mainland.

The next day, he flew to Regina and made a direct challenge to Ralph Goodale, the Liberal House leader and former finance minister, who is burdened with the unpopularity of Dion's carbon- tax proposal in the energy- producing province of Saskatchewan. From there, Harper flew to Winnipeg yesterday, and will be in Toronto today and Montreal tomorrow, on his way to the Atlantic. Along the way, he announced a 50-per-cent reduction in the diesel-fuel tax. By Saturday, when he touches down in Newfoundland, where there might be a cold welcome from Premier Danny Williams, Harper will have campaigned across the country and back again in the first week of the campaign. There might not be momentum in his schedule, but there is certainly is movement, and his tour looks highly competent.

Jack Layton, too, made a statement at the starting line. He opened his campaign in Gatineau, and his opening statement was delivered first in French, as has become Harper's custom. His visuals were framed by Parliament Hill, and Layton boldly suggested that as Harper had resigned his job, he was applying for it.

Layton then got on his plane and flew to Calgary, to underline his point by holding his first campaign event in Harper's own riding. The very audacity of it was quite admirable.

Stéphane Dion? He got on a bus and went to Ottawa South, the closest thing to a safe Liberal riding in the capital. Then he got on his bus and went to Montreal where, the next day, he campaigned in St. Lambert and Westmount-Ville Marie, where by-elections had been scheduled for that day, and where the Liberals had a semblance of a campaign organization already in place.

That evening, Dion attended his own nomination meeting in St. Laurent, and yesterday appeared in N.D.G.-Lachine before boarding his bus again for eastern Ontario. He has spent the better part of his campaign launch on the ground in Montreal, campaigning in some of the safest Liberal seats in creation.

This is not a good sign. Normally a leader goes to competitive ridings or battleground regions, where seats are in play. Dion isn't fooling anyone by campaigning in Westmount, St. Laurent and N.D.G. He is merely calling attention to the weakness of the Liberal campaign in Quebec outside Montreal. Imagine Harper spending two days in a row campaigning in safe Calgary seats, including his own. Nope.

As for the Liberal campaign plane, it won't be ready until tonight. It's a 28-year-old Boeing 737-200 and it's being refitted by its owners, Air Inuit. It's also one-third less fuel-efficient than the A-319s chartered from Air Canada by the Conservatives and the NDP. And Dion is supposed to be Mr. Green Shift. No problem, he's buying some carbon offsets, with precious Liberal campaign funds. Charging reporters $2,100 a day for a seat on a bus make for a lot of unhappy campers.

It's also hard to figure out Dion's message. If you turn down the volume on the television, you see a guy waving his arms a lot. If you turn the volume up, you hear him calling Harper a liar. Or as Dion put it: "He cannot stop to lie." Dion's problem isn't that he's got a hearing problem, it's that he cannot stop to translate.

But it's early days. It's far too soon, and way too early for he Conservatives to be putting up poll numbers showing them within reach of a majority. That just brings back the voters' fear of giving them one. And you can always count on the Conservatives for the kind of juvenile stunt they pulled on-line yesterday, with a fly-by puffin dropping something on Dion's shoulder.

The Conservative war room is clearly in need of adult supervision, but then so are the news rooms that freaked out over the poopin' puffin on a day when Harper announced his cut in the diesel tax, and George W. Bush announced a "quiet surge" of thousands more American troops to Afghanistan.

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