The happy warrior tries to raise a Conservative tide in Ontario

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The Gazette, Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jim Flaherty was standing on a wooden box at a makeshift podium at the opening of the Conservative committee room in Brampton-Springdale in suburban Toronto.

"I've never been so tall," quipped Flaherty, who has occasionally been called Wee Jim.

The crowd of nearly 500 answered with appreciative laughter.

That's Flaherty, the Conservative party's happy warrior, setting up a serious message with a funny line at his own expense.

He's working without a text or even bullet points. Normally a finance minister is scripted, because his words can move markets. But this is a stump speech, partisan and pointed, from the Conservatives' best messenger, whose role in this campaign is to deliver seats in the Greater Toronto Area, for which he's the minister in charge.

In a single Sunday afternoon, he will barnstorm through five appearances in the area-code-905 suburban belt around Toronto, before heading into the city for a fundraiser. All five 905 ridings are held by the Liberals, three of them won by margins of five points or less. All of them are in play. Flaherty's mission is to fire up campaign volunteers to get out the vote.

"We are on the cusp of a majority," Flaherty tells the crowd. "It matters for the brilliant future of Canada that we have a majority."

At every stop, he openly campaigns on the "M" word that was not allowed to pass the lips of Conservative candidates in the last three elections.

And this leads him to the prospect of an opposition coalition in the event the Conservatives are returned with a third consecutive minority government.

"They've done it before and they'll do it again," Flaherty says, recalling the Three Stooges coalition of December 2008. "What they tried to do was take over the government. The finance critic of the NDP sat in my office and said, 'You may be finance minister now but you won't be in a week. We're taking over.' "

At every stop, he then introduces the local candidate. In Brampton-Springdale, it's Parm Gill, who reminds the mostly Indo-Canadian crowd that "the Liberal Party has taken the ethnic vote for granted." He lost to Ruby Dhalla by less than two points in 2008. Like her, he's a westernized member of the community. Like her he's a crossover candidate, with strong appeal to other voters. If the Conservative tide rises in 905, this is one of the seats.

In nearby Bramalea-Gore-Malton, the Conservatives are also running a member of the Indo-Canadian community. The crowd of about 200 cheers the cutting of a blue ribbon to open the campaign headquarters of Bal Gosal. In 2008, Gurbax S. Malhi defeated Conservative candidate Stella Amber by seven points, and the ethnic vote made the difference. This time, there is no homeice advantage for the Liberals with the Indian community, and Gosal's tracking has him running ahead.

"We've come out of the recession in better shape than any other country in the world, with nearly half a million new jobs," Flaherty says. "We have a wonderful reputation in the world. Tim Geithner, the U.S. treasury secretary, calls us 'virtuous Canada.' In the U.K., they've had draconian cuts, with 400,000 civil servants laid off."

The partisan crowds like the narrative of Canada coming safely through the economic storm. It has the added virtues of being true, and told by the guy who was at the wheel.

"As a member of Parliament from the GTA, I get lonely in Ottawa," Flaherty says. "We need more members from the GTA. It matters for the brilliant future of Canada that we have a majority."

There's the "M" word again.

Down is Mississauga South, Ambler is running again, this time in a riding that fits her better, against longtime Liberal incumbent Paul Szabo, the combative chair of the House Ethics Committee. He won last time by less than five points.

In Ontario, decided voters put out lawn signs, and Amblers are everywhere. On a late Sunday afternoon, about 150 of her supporters crowd into the Brogue Irish Pub to hear Flaherty introduce her.

"Finally," he says, "someone I'm taller than."

"I've had Jim as a boss," says Ambler, who used to run his Toronto ministerial office. "But I'd love to have him as a colleague."

This is a very competitive race, as is Ajax-Pickering on the other side of 905, next to Flaherty's own riding of Whitby-Oshawa. Chris Alexander, a former ambassador to Afghanistan, has been running hard for two years against Liberal Mark Holland, who won by six points in 2008.

On Monday morning, Flaherty is out with Alexander at 6 a.m., greeting commuters at the Pickering GO train. GO bus drivers get off their buses to shake Flaherty's hand. "See you on TV all the time," says one commuter. "You're doing a good job. Keep it up."

"It feels good here," Flaherty says.

"Very good."

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