Harper's winning the ad war with his Morning in Canada message

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The Gazette, Wednesday, March 2, 2011

We appear to be entering the phoney-war period of an election, in which there's no writ being dropped but the campaign has already begun.

The Conservatives and the NDP have rolled out a new flight of TV ads this week, and not just in the hope of getting earned media coverage and free visibility on You-Tube, but with a significant ad buy as well. As for the Liberals, they're still running a flight of attack ads from late January, themed negatively to "Stephen Harper's Canada" on corporate tax cuts and fighter-jet procurement.

It's all about positioning going into the budget, and staking out ground in case the Harper government falls on it.

There are four NDP ads featuring Jack Layton, the first one focused on his core message of making Parliament work, the next two regionally targeted to the NDP heartlands of Ontario and British Columbia, and the last one a 60-second spot of Layton talking about getting things done for Canadians.

In the spots for Ontario and B.C., Layton reminds voters of the NDP's opposition to the harmonized sales tax in both provinces. This is just opinion reinforcement for the NDP base.

But the heart of his message is in the last 10 seconds of his spot on making Parliament work.

"We have to do better," Layton says. "It's time to roll up our sleeves, put the partisan games aside, and start getting results, like increasing assistance for seniors in need and giving a little help for those who are caring for a parent at home. That's Canadian leadership."

Here, Layton isn't just talking to voters; he's also talking to Stephen Harper and Jim Flaherty.

What he's saying is, give us an increase in the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors, and home-care benefits for families caring for a loved one, and it's a deal on the budget.

He can get that, and say the NDP got it, for a bit more than $1 billion. Of course, Layton has a much longer wish list, but everyone understands that. Everyone also understands that Layton being Layton, and the NDP being the NDP, all their demands are non-negotiable.

That was Layton's position last week, when he got spooked by the Liberals following his budget meeting with Harper, after which it was reported that corporate tax cuts were "off the table." Layton then went on television and drew lines in the sand that he will have to step back from in the event of a deal. He also worries about the NDP tribe.

Yet in the fall of 2009, Layton negotiated a $1-billion extension of employmentinsurance benefits coming out of the recession. The Canadian Auto Workers thought it was a bad idea, and said so, until laid-off autoworkers told them something else.

Layton may be jittery, but it's clear the NDP would rather have a budget deal on terms it can live with than an election in which it might well take a significant hit.

As for the Liberals, their messaging isn't very sophisticated, and their production values suck, with dollar bills flying all over the screen and cash registers ringing incessantly. "Stephen Harper's Canada," the voice-over begins over an ominous blackand-white image of fighter jets flying into your living room. "An untendered deal to spend $16 billion on 65 fighter jets. What can he be thinking? Is this your Canada? Or Harper's?"

On corporate taxes, Harper is pictured against a backdrop of Toronto's bank towers, and the voice-over says, "Harper is giving your tax dollars to the largest corporations, with a $6 billion tax cut." Just then a limo screeches to a halt, and then burns rubber as it pulls away. Naturally, the limo turns out to be a stretch longer than the one at your daughter's highschool grad.

The Tory pushback this week is that Michael Ignatieff is a tax-and-spend Liberal whose cancellation of the corporate tax cuts would amount to a $6-billion tax increase. This is an equally crude message, with the likely effect of cancelling the Liberal one out.

What the Liberals should be very concerned about is the Conservatives' new 60-second positive spot, in which Harper himself is the narrator. It's shot in a soft focus, with uplifting background music.

Harper's working in his office, hanging out with the kids, touring a plant, honouring the fallen.

"We're lucky to live in Canada," says Harper in the voice-over. "It's our home. It's our inheritance. We're all in this together."

Coming out of the recession, he says, Canadians are "walking taller, standing prouder, getting stronger. Our best days are yet to come."

This is the most powerful positive campaign spot since Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America" in 1984, and highly reminiscent of it.

And with no restrictions on what they can spend in a prewrit period, the Tories are going to run it everywhere, from news adjacencies to hockey. Morning in Canada.

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