By BRIAN LAGHI
The Globe and Mail
Canadian Alliance strategists attempted yesterday to turn their leader's decision to stay away from the office into a political virtue, saying Stockwell Day is a man of his word who won't sacrifice his faith and family for political gain.
Rather than join other political leaders on the campaign hustings, Mr. Day spent the day of the election call in Ottawa with his wife, Valorie, continuing his ritual of devoting Sunday to his religious beliefs and family. The move prompted some questions from reporters, which Mr. Day's campaign generals parried by saying Mr. Day won't give up family time for political opportunity.
"Mr. Day made a commitment to his family 14 years ago that he would set aside one of his seven days each week to spend on his personal priorities and that's a matter of conviction," said Calgary MP Jason Kenney, the campaign's co-chairman. "I think Canadians respect somebody who keeps his promises to one's family and has strong personal convictions. People will know that Stockwell Day is somebody that will stick to his commitments; is not somebody who will do anything for political reason."
Mr. Day's religious beliefs on issues such as abortion are expected to become campaign issues, and his decision not to campaign on Sundays is seen by some as an impediment to performing the prime minister's duties.
But political experts said yesterday that they saw little problem with Mr. Day not sharing screen time on Canada's newscasts last night with other leaders.
"I think it may well benefit him," said Sid Noel, a political scientist at the University of Western Ontario.
Prof. Noel added, however, that the move could backfire later, should the campaign be a close one and the party not have Mr. Day to count on during the campaign's last weekend. He said Mr. Day would not be able to change his mind on the last weekend.
"The pattern is set by what he does today."
Mr. Day's officials have said that the leader would not change his habits should he become prime minister. Only a national tragedy or extraordinary circumstances would prompt a change.
Mr. Day did his weekend electioneering on Saturday, when he used the backdrop of the Parliament buildings to challenge Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to a series of five regional debates.
"Jean Chrétien and his friends think they own that building over there," Mr. Day told about 250 listeners at a riverside news conference in Hull. "I've got news for them. It is owned by the people of Canada and we will take it back November 27th."
In an interview with The Globe and Mail later on Saturday, Mr. Day said that his party could win 30 to 40 seats in Ontario because voters there are tired of their provincial government fighting with the federal Liberals. The party, which represents just one riding east of the Ontario-Manitoba border, must do well in Canada's largest province if it is to have any chance of challenging the Liberals.
He also said that the Liberals cannot take credit for the roaring economy. Rather, substantial tax cuts in the provinces and the United States should get the recognition, he said. Mr. Day finished his campaigning in Toronto at a convention of Ontario Tories.
Yesterday, Mr. Kenney flagged the party's main campaign messages when he referred to Liberal conceit as one of the major issues.
"Summed up in one word, the record of this government is that of arrogance," he said. "Canadians are tired of this tired government."
The party's other election co-chairman, Peter White, said Mr. Chrétien had no valid reason to call an election now "other than his opportunism and his usual kind of cynicism we see from the Liberal government."
Reminded later that Mr. Day dared him to call an early vote, Mr. Kenney said the Alliance would be happy to engage in the debate over issues such as high taxes.
Alliance's campaign will focus on its policy of tax reductions, tougher laws on justice issues and Mr. Day's telegenic personality. They will need a substantial amount of that to be successful, particularly in Ontario, where the Alliance is well behind the eight ball. The party had nominated only about 20 candidates as of one week ago, thanks to the early vote and, in part, to an internal moratorium by the party.