Mulroney then, Harper now

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National Post, Friday, October 10, 2008

Stephen Harper's predicament in the final days of this campaign is strikingly like the difficult situation in which Brian Mulroney found himself in the 1988 election, when the tables turned on him in the leaders' debate on his own preferred ballot question.

Back then it was about free trade. Now, it's about the economy in the context of the global crisis in financial markets.

In 2008 as in 1988, the Liberal leader won the debate, relative to expectations, just by showing up. But in 1988, John Turner also framed a defining moment when he pointed a finger at Mulroney and declared: "I believe you have sold us out." In a single sound bite, Turner tapped into a deep-seated Canadian anxiety about getting too close to the United States. Moreover, he was a public figure of real stature, waging what he called "the fight of my life."

Stephane Dion is no John Turner, and he has great difficulty making himself understood in his second language, but he managed to exceed debate expectations, which had been so low for him as to be dangerous for Harper.

And that's where the parallel begins. In 1988, when one of Mulroney's cabinet ministers brought him a poll that showed only 8% of Quebecers thought Turner was the best leader, the Conservative leader replied: "That's the worst news you can give me."

And like Turner on free trade, Dion managed to plant a seed of doubt with voters on the economy when he said he would call a meeting on the financial crisis within a month, and accused Harper of not having a plan to deal with it.

Instead of connecting with voters in a period of high anxiety, Harper fell back on briefing book bullet points about the soundness of the Canadian banking system, mortgage sector and fiscal framework.

He's right about all of that, compared to the United States. And just yesterday, the World Economic Forum agreed with him, putting out a report ranking the Canadian banking system the soundest in the world. Switzerland was ranked 16th. The United States ranked 40th. This is not rocket science, only sound bites.

As striking as the similarities are between the 1988 and 2008 campaigns, there are also some important differences.

For one thing, at Mulroney's insistence, the leadership debates were held on Oct. 24 and 25, nearly a month before the Nov. 21 vote. In the event he took a hit, he wanted time to recover. And he had three full weeks on the campaign trail to turn things around.

The 2008 debates were held on Oct. 1 and 2, before a vote on Oct 14. This left Harper with only one week, once he realized things were going the wrong way, to stabilize his campaign and get it turned around. In fairness to Harper, this is asking a lot, and events in markets have continued to conspire against him this week, increasing the difficulty of getting out a clean and clear message.

For another, Mulroney was a great campaigner under pressure. It's far from clear that Harper and his brain trust know when to throw out the playbook, and the teleprompter script, think outside the box and simply campaign like everything depended on it, as indeed everything does. His problem isn't competence, and knowing his files -- everyone knows he knows his stuff. His challenge is one of connecting with voters at their own level.

When Harper says, as he did in a scrum the other day, that he gets better information on the stock market from his mother than he does from the department of Finance, that's a very good moment. It recalls Mulroney telling of his mother calling up to worry about losing her pension because of free trade. It can't be scripted. It's authentic, and the voters have a way of sensing that. And it can't be done by teleprompter, only by connecting to voters in the hall and, through them, to voters watching snippets at home.

At such a moment, it's all on the shoulders of the leader just as, if he fails, it's all on his head.

Twenty years ago, flying out of Ottawa for Vancouver when the polls had turned on him, Brian Mulroney sat in the forward cabin of his campaign plane and quietly said: "He's got the momentum. Now we're going to find out what we're made of."

With only three days left in his campaign, Stephen Harper is at such a moment in his life. In the next few days, we are going to find out what he's made of.

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