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Electoral showdown in Ottawa and Washington

I don’t know a single one of my friends or acquaintances who plans to vote Conservative in the federal election, now less than 10 days away. Yet polls show Stephen Harper so far ahead that there is now talk of a Tory majority.

How did Harper, who everyone agrees is a superb tactician, do it? My view is that Harper, right out of the gate, defined the central issue of the campaign. That issue is leadership. And Canadians by a country mile see Harper as a far more accomplished leader than any of his opponents.

Entering the campaign, Harper wanted to build on his leadership advantage by showing a new side. He would smother one of his main negatives: the image of him as a sinister, overly partisan operator. Ads showed a soft, caring family man and a benign and understanding human being. Never mind that Harper, the one-time Reformer, is so straight-laced, you would think he walks into the shower in a three-piece suit.

Harper’s main opponent, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, also tried to define the major issue for the campaign. First it was the tax on carbon, the Green Shift. But it never caught on. Either the Green Shift was too complex to explain, or Dion hasn’t found a formula to translate it into everyday language that his candidates can use on the doorstep.

After a couple of halting weeks, the Liberal strategists pretty well buried the carbon tax. Instead they began to showcase their team – Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff, Martha Hall Findlay, and Gerard Kennedy.

The idea was to emphasize the strong Liberal team as opposed to Harper’s weak and nameless cabinet.

It might have worked but it didn’t. One reason is that the people around Dion, strong communicators and politically savvy, simply brought their leader’s weaknesses into bold relief.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve thought Stéphane Dion is a remarkable person ever since I first encountered him at a speech at Concordia during the last referendum. I further think that if he ever got the keys to 24 Sussex, he could well become a splendid prime minister. Dion is not ideologically driven and he’s as honest as the day is long. No matter. Dion, who lacks poltical street smarts, has not been able to communicate his message in either official language.

The result is that the Liberal vote has collapsed in British Columbia and there will almost certainly be significant losses in Ontario and Quebec. Only in Atlantic Canada is the Liberal vote holding.

Another problem is that, with the exception of someone like Marc Garneau, Dion has not been able to attract star candidates in Quebec or anywhere else. Nor did the debates change the momentum in any significant way.

At this stage, the prospects for the Liberals are bleak indeed. If Dion can’t hang onto the seats he has now – 95 – it is difficult to see how he can survive as leader.

The same judgement could be made about Senator John McCain in the American election. If Senator Obama loses he would almost certainly run again four years hence.

But as this is being written, about four weeks ahead of the election, it does not appear that Obama is losing. The latest ABC-Washington Post poll shows Obama nine points ahead. You have to go back to Tom Dewey’s surprising loss to Harry Truman in 1948 to find a candidate this far ahead at this stage of the election who subsequently lost.

McCain has two problems. So long as the news is about bank bailouts and a faltering economy, Obama has the advantage. In the first debate McCain needed a game changer. He didn’t get it. Obama needed a tie. And in my view he surpassed that.

McCain’s other problem is Sarah Palin. The bloom is off the rose so far as the governor of Alaska is concerned. Even conservative columnists, like David Brooks in the New York Times, complain that Palin’s answers, in the few media interviews she has done, are so incoherent and painful that he cannot bring himself to watch her anymore.

But Palin is nothing if not resilient. She smiled her way through the vice-presidential debate, answered questions when she could, ducked them when she couldn’t, and lived to campaign another day.

It will not likely be enough. The tide is moving strongly toward Obama and it is hard to say what will change it.

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