Beware the echo effect

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National Post, Tuesday, September 30, 2008

One part of the conventional wisdom about elections is that the real campaign only begins after the leaders' debates. Another is that the debates are game-changers that produce defining moments. A third is that parties try to exceed expectations by keeping them low.

Managing expectations isn't part of the debate prep, but it is part of the pre-game show. In the run-up to this week's debates, the Conservative spin is that the other four leaders will gang up on Stephen Harper, and that he'll be fortunate to escape with a tie. Stephane Dion is already the beneficiary of low expectations and, like John Turner in 1988, he could win just by showing up. Similarly, the Green party's Elizabeth May wins just by being on a level playing field with the other leaders. With Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe, May makes five people on the stage of the National Arts Centre tomorrow and Thursday. Viewers may find that her inclusion makes good democracy, but lousy television -- rather like the early and crowded days of presidential primaries in the United States.

In the Canadian political culture, the French debate is usually, though not always, held first. And it's often quite important, not only in terms of its impact in Quebec, but also for its echo effect in the rest of Canada.

In the 1984 campaign, Brian Mulroney scored heavily in the Frenchlanguage debate when he made a direct appeal to Quebecers "as a son of the North Shore," asking for their help to give Canada an alternative to the Liberals. There was an immediate overnight double-digit shift in voting intention to the Conservatives in Quebec, and the echo effect softened up the rest of Canada even before Mulroney's famous knockout punch on patronage -- "you had an option" -- in English the next night.

In 1988, John Turner unexpectedly turned the tables on Mulroney in both languages. In French, he scored when he quoted Antonine Maillet's storied character, La Sagouine: "My face may be dirty but my hands are clean." And in English the next night, he tapped into a deep-seated insecurity about the United States when he pointed a finger at Mulroney and famously said about free trade: "I believe you have sold us out."

In 1993, Jean Chretien had a very strong moment in French when turned to Lucien Bouchard and said: "I'm as much a Quebecer as you are." In 2006, Stephen Harper, looked directly into the camera and said: "Je tends la main aux Quebecois."

Harper is in another place in 2008, and on the eve of the French debate, he is also in a predicament in Quebec, one of his own making, as well as of his campaign advisers, whose effective wedge tactics in English-speaking Canada have been flipped against them in Quebec.

Two weeks ago, Harper was cruising to a major breakthrough in Quebec on the two-track message that he was delivering the goods for the province, while the Bloc had outlived its usefulness. But then the Conservative war room overplayed their hand by rolling out a mobile billboard in front of Bloc headquarters in Duceppe's own riding, asserting that Quebecers had wasted hundreds of millions of dollars in electing MPs since 1993. The messenger for this missive in democracy was the unelected Michael Fortier from the Senate.

But much more to the point, the Bloc has successfully linked cultural funding cuts and a juvenile crime crackdown, which play well in the rest of Canada, under a powerful theme that the right-wing Conservatives don't share Quebec values. Harper didn't help his own cause when he blew off the arts crowd as people attending "rich galas."

This has jump-started a Bloc campaign that had been floundering, enhancing its residual strength as a defender of Quebec interests, and even more powerfully, of Quebec values. Instead of it being about them, they've made it about Harper.

In a new authoritative Leger Marketing poll, the Bloc has consolidated its position at 33%, while the Conservatives have slipped eight point in two weeks to 26%, while the Liberals have gained from Conservative slippage to grow by three points, mostly in the Montreal region, to 23%. The Leger poll is a massive sampling of 3,600 Quebecers, and its regional breakouts confirm that the Conservatives have been pushed back into their 418 stronghold in Quebec City and east, and that even that region is more competitive than two weeks ago. Women, in particular, have been moving away from the Conservatives, and anecdotally they've been saying that while they respect Harper, they don't like him.

For Harper, then, the challenge of the French debate is not only to engage as prime minister, but to show a kinder, gentler, even good-humoured side. That will take more than a sleeveless sweater.

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