The wild tumble of Michael Ignatieff

The Conservatives might be competitive in Quebec as the Liberals fall

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The Gazette, Friday, October 9, 2009

No leader of a Canadian political party has ever taken such a tumble in public opinion as Michael Ignatieff has since he told Stephen Harper his time was up on the first day of September.

It's a stunning fall from political grace, entirely of his own making. And the problem with a free fall, is that there's no way of knowing when you've bottomed out. Until then, Ignatieff could win the Nobel Peace Prize for doing nothing, as Barack Obama just has, and his numbers would still keep falling.

The latest in a series of devastating polls, from EKOS for the CBC, shows the Conservatives clearly in majority territory at 39.7 per cent to the Liberals at 25.7 per cent - a 14-point spread. These numbers are very close to the Conservatives' internal polling. Harper must be itching to engineer his own defeat in the House.

The Conservatives lead in every region except Quebec, where they've moved back into second place, in a complete turnaround from the spring. With the Bloc at 39 per cent, the Conservatives at 22 per cent and the Liberals at 21 per cent, the Tories have again reclaimed their standing as the competitive federalist party in the 50-seat battleground outside Montreal, particularly in the region around Quebec City. Only six months ago, Ignatieff and the Liberals were in first place, and the Tories were on life support in the low teens. Now the Liberals have once again been pushed back into Fortress Montreal.

And no one likes their prospects in the two Quebec by-elections. Hochelaga is as safe for the Bloc in east end Montreal as Westmount is for the Liberals in the west. Here, the Liberals figure to finish a distant second, about 30 points behind Daniel Paillé, a former Parti Québécois cabinet minister from the Parizeau era. But the NDP could possibly sneak into second place in a riding with a bit of a go-go gauche history.

It's downriver, in Montmagny-l'Islet-Kamouraska-Rivière-du-Loup, which is shaping up as the most competitive of the four federal by-elections, and one where the Conservatives are bidding for an upset of the Bloc. The EKOS numbers, putting them back to their election-day levels, mean they are going to be competitive in the riding, won by the Bloc by 15 points in the general election, 45 to 30 per cent.

The Conservatives have recruited a strong candidate in Bernard Généreux, a former mayor of La Pocatière, with deep connections to the provincial Liberals. Jean Charest would be supporting the Conservatives in this riding anyway, as the block-the-Bloc party in the riding. The Big Red Machine is a formidable presence in any campaign, and can make a decisive difference in GOTV - get out the vote. As of today, the Bloc and Conservatives are virtually tied. Absent the kind of cultural and values grievances that tripped up Harper a year ago, the Conservatives might well pull this one off.

As for the Liberals, they will be a bad third there, and they should be managing expectations in that direction.

Looking at the EKOS chart of previous polls, it's very clear. The Liberals were tied with the Conservatives at mid-summer, and began to lose momentum in August, by which time Ignatieff's stately summer tour, and his lack of a message, were on the radar screen.

And the bottom has simply fallen out since Ignatieff's Sudbury Stand. The Liberal trend line looks like a Nortel stock chart on the way down.

Well, maybe if Ignatieff had toured the country more aggressively over the summer, he would have heard the voters loud and clear on their desire not to have an election.

Ignatieff is a thinker, and part of his problem is that he sometimes thinks out loud, as he did the other day in London, Ont., where he responded to the bad EKOS poll with yet more introspection.

Complaining that he has been "framed" by the Conservatives as "just visiting," just as Stéphane Dion was defined as "not a leader," Ignatieff declared: "I've got to lift that big frame off and let Canadians see who I really am, and we will be doing that."

He added: "If there are certain things I need to do better, I am certainly going to be ready to try, because I want to listen to Canadians and improve my performance any way I can."

Oh, for heaven's sake. Stop talking about it, and just do it.

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