Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Attack-ad retaliation coming

Imagine Harper line dancing at the Stampede

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That didn't take long.

Within hours of Justin Trudeau's victory as new Liberal leader, Tory attack ads were released. They featured prominently a video of Trudeau performing a mock striptease at a fundraising event. His semi-provocative performance earned $1,800 for the charity and provided the Tories with a few minutes of character-assassination gold.

The Liberals have promised to respond in kind. It's not hard to imagine Grit staffers scanning the Internet for images of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the back row of a step class or doing the funky chicken at a wedding, or line dancing at the Calgary Stampede. Best of luck with that.

As we know all too well, in addition to living a rather scandal-free existence, Harper and the Tories know how to draft an attack ad. Following a well-established Tory formula, the anti-Trudeau ads dredge up embarrassing prior comments, show Trudeau in compromising poses and portray the new leader as wholly unworthy of support.

These ads claim Trudeau is "in over his head." They allege he has neither the experience nor judgment to be prime minister. Trudeau is different than his predecessors, but the Tory attack narrative is alarmingly similar. This is not a Tory strategy solely; all parties dabble in this black art. The Tories are just really good at it.

The ironies in these new Tory ads are not, from a journalistic point of view, worth mentioning. Except that it's way too much fun to point them out.

The ads make fun of Trudeau's resumé before politics, noting that he was, at various times, a camp counsellor, a rafting instructor and a drama teacher. Of course, you could point out that before entering politics, Harper was a mailroom clerk, a computer technician and the chief administrator of a not-for-profit group.

(Lesson for parents: Ensure your kids get noble summer jobs while they're in high school. You don't want your child's political future scuttled by a stint working the drive-thru at Tim Hortons.)

The current attack ads quote, at times out of context, Trudeau saying controversial things such as "Quebeckers are better than the rest of Canada." Harper knows firsthand this is a good strategy, as he was the victim of it at the hands of the Paul Martin Liberals, who nailed him for demanding, while heading the National Citizens Coalition, that a "firewall" be established around Alberta to protect it from the rest of Canada.

(Lesson for all politicians: In these days of social media feeding frenzies and unblinking, search-engine-fuelled investigations, don't say anything about anything. Seriously.)

The "inexperienced" allegation is interesting, in so far as it's code for "too young." That's odd because, although he is 12 years older than the 41-year-old Trudeau, Harper was only 34 years old when he was first elected as an MP, 44 when he became leader and only 46 when he became the prime minister.

(Lesson for aspiring politicians: Do not seek a meaningful role in politics until you are either older than your principal opponent, or older than your parents were when you graduated university, whichever makes you older.)

It's easy to have fun with the narrative of attack ads, but there is still some intrigue at work here. The Tories certainly hope the ads slow down Trudeaumania 2.0. Even before he became leader, national polls showed the Grits surging in support. There is every expectation that support will grow in the afterglow of his win.

However, convention bounces do come to an end. Michael Ignatieff saw nearly identical levels of support in the days following his rise to leader. And we know that did not last.

The difference now is that Trudeau is already better known than Ignatieff. His famous surname, which can be a curse and a blessing depending on where you are, guarantees a certain public profile. The Tories are not, this time, working with a Dionesque or Ignatieffian blank slate where they can create an image and galvanize it with attack ads in the public consciousness.

Trudeau is not only better known, he is more charismatic, more telegenic and generally more talented in retail politics. There seems to be genuine and spontaneous interest in what he has to say. If, as his critics accuse, he has little or nothing to say, then charisma and good looks will lose their appeal. But for now, he is a hot property who cannot be easily defined by the Tory attack machine. Don't be surprised if these ads flame out in a week or so.

The Grits have promised an ad campaign of their own, although no one knows what tack they will take. In the absence of definitive intel on what the Liberals have in mind, here is a possible opening volley:

With the theme from Rocky in the background, we see slow-motion footage of a charity boxing match where a bare-chested Trudeau is beating the snot out of Tory Sen. Patrick Brazeau, currently suspended from duty because he was charged with sexual assault.

The tag line? "Justin Trudeau. He can take a punch. And he can dish it out, too."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2013 A10


Updated on Tuesday, April 16, 2013 at 8:23 AM CDT: adds fact box

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