Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Beloved, but perhaps flustered Tory leader

Harper's future hinges on getting results

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They do love him.

In a cramped ballroom in a homely hotel located in a particularly homely part of the city, Stephen Harper was greeted lustily by more than 500 of his supporters for a campaign rally. It was a very brief, drive-by event that might seem at first blush like a slight to Manitoba. In reality, it was appropriate given the number of seats in Manitoba and the number the Tories are poised to win. That is to say, when you have more seats, and more winnable seats, you get a longer visit. Enough said.

What this event lacked in duration it more than made up with sheer star power. Harper stopped off to see Winnipeg YouTube sensation Maria Aragon at her home, and then invited the young singer to sing O Canada at the rally. Aragon arrived 30 minutes before Harper made his entry, with an entourage in tow that was only slightly smaller than the prime minister's. It was pure brilliance on the part of the Tories; right now, there is probably no other Winnipegger you would want to be seen with more than Aragon. Except maybe Chicago Blackhawks captain and Stanley Cup champion Jonathan Toews. And to be honest, he'd probably have to date Lady Gaga to achieve the same lofty Aragonian status.

It was everything the Tories hoped it would be. Chanting, cheering and balloon volleyball. However, during Harper's stump speech, it was clear to the journalists-cum-wet-blankets that something was slightly off.

Harper was unusually sloppy in his address, muffing words and falling into several alliterative traps that caused him at one point to stop and regroup. I remember seeing Harper on the first day of the 2008 campaign in Richmond, B.C. He was pure elegance, a study in confidence. This time around, he seemed a bit flustered.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Harper is fighting an election campaign he says he didn't want. Whether this election was forced on the Tories, or they are merely happy to appear like it was forced on them, is no matter. It's game on now.

It's early, but it appears fear has become the theme of the Harper campaign. Fear the fragility of the economy. Fear the ambition and arrogance of the Liberal-NDP-Bloc Québécois coalition. Fear being on the campaign trail when there is so much important work to be done in Ottawa. Harper has a lot to fear, including his own fate.

It is not a stretch to suggest the stakes are higher for Harper than any of the three main party leaders. Having won back-to-back minority mandates, Harper has more than repaid the party for electing him leader in 2004. However, politics is a 'what-have-you-done-for-me-lately' profession and this time around, nothing less than a majority will save Harper's job.

That majority is within his grasp. And there is no doubt that should he win a majority on May 2, Harper would be leader of the Conservative party for some time to come. But if he were to win another minority, even a larger minority, there would be rumblings of discontent, perhaps even the beginnings of rebellion. There is some evidence to suggest that discontent has already started.

Harper suffered an unusually large number of departures from his cabinet prior to the defeat of his government. Conservative stars such as Jim Prentice, Stockwell Day and Chuck Strahl all decided to retire from politics. Only Strahl, who has battled cancer, had a convenient explanation for why this, and why now? The other departures seem to strongly suggest that top Tories are worried about where this is all going.

It is a fundamental truth of politics that you must always show forward progress to retain the leadership of a party. Former Manitoba premier Gary Doer has always provided one of the best cases in point. Doer became leader in 1987, just after the NDP government was defeated on its budget and just before the party was reduced to 12 seats in a provincial election. That loss might have marked the beginning of a short political career, if not for the fact the NDP increased its seat total to 20 in 1990, 23 in 1995 and then finally 32 in 1999 when the party reclaimed power. Doer continued this trend while in government, increasing his seat total in both the 2003 and 2007 elections. Doer always said a leader who is not moving forward is a leader with a target on his or her back.

Harper lost an election in 2004, but won a minority in 2006 and then increased his seat haul in 2008. Now, anything less than a majority will be perceived as a failure that may ultimately cost him his job.

It is often said that fear is a great motivator. Given what is at stake in this election, and the uncertainty among the electorate, Harper and the Tories should have no trouble finding their motivation.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2011 A3

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