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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

PCs posing as front-runners, when they're not

By MURRAY CAMPBELL
Globe and Mail
Friday, Sep. 19, 2003

WINDSOR — Fourteen days to go and 14 points down.That's the scenario facing Ontario's Progressive Conservatives as they attempt to win a third consecutive election.It's a daunting task, to gain one point in public opinion every single day before the Oct. 2 vote simply to pull even with the Liberals. The fact that this gap has remained relatively constant for months suggests that the Conservatives ought to be trying something different in the campaign. But there are no signs of this happening.

Ernie Eves, the party leader, believes voters will return to the Tory fold if he keeps doing what he's been doing.

He was asked yesterday during a campaign stop in Sarnia whether he thought the party's message was getting out.

"I believe it is," he replied. "Look at the reception I get when I go to various places and it's been a positive one." There a few wee problems with this statement.

The first is that as Mr. Eves was speaking, in the shadow of a bridge over the St. Clair River to the United States, a group of trade-unionist protesters was shouting: "Not this time, Ernie."

The second is that while it may be true that Mr. Eves has been greeted favourably as he crisscrosses Ontario, that's because he mostly meets supporters.

His forays into the general public have been mixed.

On Wednesday, he got a good reception at the International Plowing Match in the Ottawa Valley. Last weekend, however, he got an earful from a woman in Stratford about Tory ads ripping Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty.

Conservative campaign officials acknowledge they have had difficulties getting out their core message of tax cuts for seniors and homeowners and a crackdown on teachers strikes.

It's partly their own fault.

As incumbent Tory candidate John O'Toole acknowledged this week, the controversy over the negative tone of the central campaign got in the way of his own efforts in his Durham constituency. "A self-inflicted gunshot wound," was how he described it.

The other difficulty for the Conservatives is that they have been in office for eight years and issues cling to them like Saran Wrap.

Meat inspection, water quality, Ipperwash -- they own an endless number of problems.

And the nature of the modern political campaign means they come flying at them at warp speed.

Twenty years ago, a campaign bus was something of a cocoon as politicians' central office staff (and media representatives' editors) had only occasional contact with those on board.

Now, not just cellphones have knit everyone together.

The Conservative bus also features wireless broadband technology, which means e-mail messages pour in.

This is where the Tory hope for "earned-media" stories (as opposed to paid ads) that reflect their platform goes off the rails. At this stage of a campaign, reporters are bored with the leaders' standard speeches and are desperate for something else to write about. The new technology gives them this opportunity like never before.

The news cycle has become incredibly fast. On Wednesday, a story on the judicial investigation into the SARS inquiry bounced around like flubber and whatever the Conservative Leader had to say about his platform earlier was buried.

Like Mr. Eves, Conservative strategists believe they can get back on track simply by executing their game plan and not getting pushed off their daily message. "We don't think there's anything wrong with the fundamentals," one senior Tory said.

The difficulty with this approach is that it depends on the co-operation of truculent reporters (and on Mr. Eves's ability to resist stepping on his own message by going after Mr. McGuinty like a crazed weasel).

Next Tuesday's televised leaders debate may be the only hope for Mr. Eves to get his message out uncorrupted. Senior Conservatives remain hopeful it will be Mr. McGuinty's downfall. "For us, the debate is just one more event," a Tory strategist said. "For Dalton McGuinty, it's all on the line."

It's the pose of a front-runner. The problem is that's not what the Tories are.



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