Chapter 2

BEATING UP, AND THEN MOVING ON

February 6 2006
Chapter 2

BEATING UP, AND THEN MOVING ON

February 6 2006

BEATING UP, AND THEN MOVING ON

Chapter 2

The first line in Jane Taber’s Ottawa gossip column for the Globe and Mail of Aug. 28, 2004, was: “Stephen Harper, where are you?”

It was two months since Harper had fallen well short of defeating the Liberals in his first election as a national leader. And in those two months, the Conservative leader had all but disappeared from the public eye. Senior Conservatives were starting to grumble about their boss’s “curious (perhaps petulant?) behaviour,” Taber wrote.

Soon other journalists were playing Where’s Harper. Chantal Hébert’s Toronto Star column on Aug. 29 carried the headline, “Harper vanishes from view.” Linwood Barclay’s humour column in the same paper a few weeks later imagined two Hollywood TV cops scouring Ottawa for any trace of the vanished Tory. Harper finally did pop back into view,

when Parliament reconvened for the Oct. 5 Speech from the Throne. Very few people ever knew what he had done during his summerlong absence. What he had done was prepare to win power. “To understand what’s been happening, you really have to go back to the last election,” GeoffNorquay said over a Scotch, near the end of the 2006 campaign, at the bar of Hy’s, a Queen Street steakhouse that serves as a haunt for Parliament Hill denizens.

Norquay, a crusty and unassuming Manitoban, has worked as a spokesman for Brian Mulroney, Joe Clark and, for several months in 2004 and 2005, Stephen Harper. When he quit the Office of the Leader of the Opposition last spring, he was not happy. He would have laid long odds against Harper becoming prime minister of Canada. He didn’t work in the Conservatives’ 2006 war room, although he had in 2004. But as the campaign progressed, he started to change his calculation of Harper’s chances. It wasn’t new data that changed his mind. It was the realization that work done earlier was finally paying off.

“When the [2004] election was called, the Conservative Party of Canada was, what, four months old?” Norquay said. “And it was distinctly not ready to fight a national election. The two sides of the party”—the Progressive Conservatives and their upstart rivals, the Canadian Alliance, offspring of Preston Manning’s Reform party—“did not know each other. They really had been separate for 11 years. There were party cultures to be merged. There were bruised feelings to be assuaged. There were an awful lot of people who were not quite prepared yet to sign on to this new endeavour.”

The new party’s second obstacle was that it didn’t know what it believed. It had no policy. Or rather, on too many questions, it had two policies. Harper had assigned his deputy leader, the former PC leader Peter MacKay, to go through both old parties’ policy books to find convergences. MacKay found a lot of common ground. “But on hot-button issues— social policy, crime, abortion, things like that—there were divergences,” Norquay said. “And there was no time to call a national convention to settle them.”

The third missing ingredient was simple goodwill at the riding level. In much of the country, old Tory and Alliance riding associations had made peace before the parties merged. “But there were other parts of the country,” Norquay said, “where riding associations came together and the larger group— nearly always Alliance—played scorched earth and said, ‘We won. F— you. We’re in charge.’ Not a great way to go into an election campaign.”

So one way to look at the 2004 campaign is that, for a party created by a shotgun marriage among rivals of a decade’s standing who couldn’t agree on the right answers to the touchiest questions, the Conservatives didn’t do badly at all. Cutting Paul Martin down to a minority was a pretty good five weeks’ work.

The other way to look at the campaign was as a failure in its central objective, removing the Liberals from power. Harper has a gift for looking on the dark side. He decided he had failed. He set about making sure he wouldn’t fail again. “Preparation for the

next campaign began very quickly after the last campaign,” Norquay said. “He started over the summer, a very thorough, brutal, honest, no-holds-barred evaluation of what worked and what didn’t.”

Michael Fortier, the Conservatives’ cochairman, heard about the meetings but was not part of the small team that actually took part. But Fortier, a Montreal corporate lawyer, had a handy name for the post-mortem summer sessions of 2004He called them “the beat-up meetings.” Four Conservatives, only one of them with any public profile at all, were closest to Harper for this process.

Tom Flanagan provides what passes for star power in the Harper brain trust, and he is very nearly a black hole of charisma. The University of Calgary political scientist had been, with Harper, one of the earliest and brightest policy thinkers in Preston Manning’s Reform party. In 1995, Flanagan wrote Waiting for the Wave, a respectful but not uncritical analysis of Manning’s Reform leadership. In 2001, he led Harper’s campaign for the Alliance leadership. Since then, he has been extremely reluctant to say anything to any journalist, on or off the record.

Doug Finley, a hot-tempered Scottish immigrant with a beard and an unshakable chain-smoking habit, was a senior organizer on the 2004 campaign. His wife, Diane, was one of the 24 Conservative candidates elected in the party’s Ontario breakthrough that year. If Flanagan’s expertise was in political theory, Finley’s was in field work and organization: local strengths and weaknesses, hid-

den pockets of talent, problem candidates.

Ian Brodie is a sandy-haired and stubblechinned young political scientist who also came from the University of Calgary and had paused, briefly, to teach at the University of Western Ontario before becoming the Conservatives’ executive director and then Harper’s chief of staff. So he knew party finances, election rules, the arcane artificial universe within which parties stage their confrontations. Brodie is a nervous but immediately likeable man whose ability to smooth ruffled feathers made him a rarity in the Conservative hierarchy. He soon branched out, a Conservative insider said, to become “Harper’s consigliere, the voice of the leader with no precise role.”

The last key player was the least known. Patrick Muttart had worked at Navigator, a Toronto public-relations firm whose two lead figures are among the most flamboyant in Canadian politics. Warren Kinsella is the apostate Liberal strategist, blogger, defender ofjean Chrétien, tormentor of Paul Martin. Jaime Watt is the dapper Conservative image-maker behind Mike Harris’s 1995 and 1999 Ontario election victories. Kinsella and Watt are two of the best-known strategists in Canadian politics. But Patrick Muttart? There aren’t three reporters in Ottawa who could pick him out of a police lineup. (He politely but flatly refused to be interviewed for this article.) But what a reputation. “An absolute genius,” one Tory war room staffer said.

“He’s a bit of a nerd,” noted another. “He has no hobbies. Politics is his hobby. He likes to study winning election campaigns. Especially in the English-speaking countries.” Muttart worked in the Tory war room in 2004 and, after it went sour in the last week, “went home and wrote the mother of all postmortem memos,” this source said. Muttart’s memo was brutal and specific. Reading it, other leaders might have concluded Muttart was kicking them while they were down. Harper decided his knack for plain talk made Muttart invaluable.

“He works things out through debate,” Norquay said of Harper. “A lot of people find that intimidating because he doesn’t present his views elliptically. He tells you what he thinks, and sometimes he tells you it’s the

truth.” But people willing to confront Harper can reach a modus vivendi with him. Muttart became one of them.

Through July and August of2004, the postmortem team held beat-up meetings and traded memos. (Norquay joined only as the group grew, late in August.) Some of the beat-up crew’s decisions were easy enough. The Conservatives had released their entire platform on a Saturday. No national newspaper publishes on Sunday. No network newscast deploys its star anchor on a Saturday night. A Saturday platform drop guaranteed that nobody would hear about the Conservative platform. Next time they’d make sure it got noticed.

Another obvious gaffe was Harper’s decision to muse out loud, two weeks before the 2004 election, about forming a majority government. The collapse of Tory support followed soon after. In fact, Norquay says now, Harper’s speculation wasn’t simply the sound of his ego getting too big for his mouth. It was an attempt to build an “Ontario-Quebec echo,” the mystic phenomenon whereby rising support in Ontario makes a party more credible in Quebec, which makes it more popular in Ontario, and so forth. “It was thought out,” Norquay said. “It was an attempt to say, ‘Quebec, it’s happening in Ontario! We have two seats now, we’re gonna come up with 25! Helloooo!’ But it didn’t take.” So it wouldn’t be repeated.

So much for the easy mistakes, easily fixed. The beat-up team’s other challenges were bigger. Harper’s 2004 promises, they decided, were too grand and lofty. “They had no traction because they were at 30,000 feet,” Norquay said. “It’s one thing to talk about, ‘We will cut your taxes.’ It’s another thing to talk about a tax credit on transit passes. Or 80 bucks a year to help you pay for your kid’s hockey tournaments or ski lessons.”

Muttart identified four campaigns over the past half-century where conservative parties, once viewed as the tool of fat cats to line their pockets, had moved aggressively to capture the middle class and, through it, power. Richard Nixon’s 1968 election was the first. Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 landslide in Britain was next. Then there was the 1994 breakthrough of Newt Gingrich and the United States Republicans, who broke the Demo-

cratic stranglehold on Congress with a 10point plan called the Contract With America.

The last election was the one least known to Canadian voters and, perhaps, most useful as a model for the Conservatives: the 1996 victory of Australia’s conservative-leaning coalition under John Howard, over Paul Keating’s Labor party.

Canada and Australia are huge former British colonies with small populations, a steady influx of immigrants, and troubled Aboriginal communities. At times the two countries can seem like funhouse-mirror images of each other. Muttart would have found

a lot of relevant lessons while studying the 1996 Australian election. A decade ago, Australia had a strong economy led by a former finance minister, Keating, who had knocked off his predecessor in an internal party feud. His opponent, Howard, was seen as a rightwing mediocrity who presided over an opposition crippled by a decade of disarray and policy vacuum. Howard’s pollsters found that when you scratched the surface of prosperous Australia, you found a middle class that was sullenly convinced it was paying for the perks of the rich and the benefits of the down-and-out.

Howard prepared for the campaign by throwing off substantial amounts of rightwing ballast. He had once favoured greater use of private medicine, but he transformed himself into a champion of state medicare. How did he explain the flip-flop? “I changed my mind.” During the campaign, he pitched his message straight at middle-class voters whose lives seemed forever just a little bigger than their wallets. He revealed his platform, not all at once but one plank a day, for the duration of the campaign.

When it was over, Howard had won a resounding, durable victory. Like Nixon, Thatcher and Gingrich in three very different races before him, Howard owed his victory to a big shift of working-class and middle-class voters. In all four cases in three countries, Muttart noticed, Roman Catholic voters had migrated from the liberal parties that had become their home toward conservative parties that had struggled to appeal to anyone except Protestants.

Developing policy would take time and expertise. But the Harperites had reinforcements on the way, in the form of dozens of newly elected MPs. “Bev Oda [a rookie Ontario Conservative MP] sat on the CRTC for years,” Norquay said. “So we have a policy on that, you know? Peter Van Loan: hell of an organizer. President of the PC party of Ontario. President of the PC party of Canada. A lawyer, really smart lawyer. A guy who can write a really good strategic memo. Rona Ambrose: actually worked in federal and intergovernmental affairs in Alberta as a civil servant. Knows this shit.”

Policy development would await the return of the full caucus in the fall. Harper’s beat-up crew had one more job to do in the meantime. The Conservatives needed better advertising. The Tory ads of’04 had a certain weird kindergarten kitsch appeal—one hand smacking another as it reached into a cookie jar, that sort of thing—but they didn’t reach voters or change minds. And they couldn’t be adjusted, in content or in the mix of broadcast markets where they played, to respond to Liberal attacks. “Even if we’d been smart enough to know that we were getting our heads kicked in on advertising,” Harper told the beat-up crew at one point, “I don’t think we had the wit to fix it. Or the capability in our ad firm.”

The boutique Calgary firm the party had used, Watermark Advertising, was thanked and dismissed. As he was learning to do more and more frequently, Harper then copied success, which meant copying the Liberals. Liberal English-language campaign advertising is done, every time out, by a Torontobased consortium called Red Leaf Communications. Composition changes with party leadership, but the idea remains the same: get a seasoned ad pro to build a team using the best people he can lure from various agencies.

Harper called Perry Miele. Miele was a former Progressive Conservative Parliament Hill staffer who left politics and moved to Toronto to found a fabulously lucrative ad firm called Gingko.

He sold it out for millions and set up some capital funds to invest the returns. “He’s the kind of guy who knew the business and could go to all the hot companies and say, ‘come on along, and we’ll put together this little consortium,’ ” Norquay said. “Just like Red Leaf does.” Harper also set up a similar consortium in Montreal to produce French-language ads. Just like the Liberals.

So by the time Jane Taber’s sources realized in August that they hadn’t seen Harper in a while, he had made major strategic decisions that ensured his next campaign would not be fought like the last. He had built a more formidable ad machine. He had learned fresh lessons from successful campaigns around the world. He had healed party wounds, put his ego at risk to learn hard lessons, and laid the groundwork for a policy-development process that would ensure the Conservatives had something to say on every government portfolio.

HARPER HELD A BRUTAL EVALUATION OF WHAT WORKED AND WHAT DIDN'T. ONE INSIDER CALLED THE SESSIONS 'THE BEAT-UP MEETINGS.'

And Paul Martin? Not so much.

The day after his June 28 re-election, Martin walked into the National Press Theatre for a formal news conference. One reporter asked whether the Prime Minister would fire or replace anyone in his inner circle of advisers. After all, the Liberals had been blown from 168 to 135 seats, from majority to minority status. Only 10 days before the election, they had seemed headed straight for outright defeat. Would Martin make changes?

“No,” he said curtly. “I’m not planning any changes at all.”

“Already the lore has begun: the team didn’t get him into trouble, they got him out of it in the final days of the campaign,” Susan Delacourt wrote in the Toronto Star soon after Martin’s news conference. Delacourt called this a “new mythology,” but Martin believed every word of it. A campaign post-mortem at the Prime Minister’s Harrington Lake residence ended with a resounding consensus: great job all around.

Martin did make a few changes at the Prime Minister’s Office. But they had the effect of reinforcing his permanent campaign team’s hold on the PMO. Martin brought his loyalists in closer and pushed figures who would have represented diversity out. Karl Littler and Michele Cadario had been signing up Liberals for Martin since their student days in 1990. Both came to the PMO as deputy chiefs of staff. Martin’s principal secretary, the former Trudeau-era cabinet minister Francis Fox, went home to Montreal. His replacement was Hélène Scherrer, far less experienced and quite unfamiliar with the country outside Quebec. Mario Laguë, a career civil servant with solid ties to Quebec’s provincial Liberal party, left the PMO after a brief and unhappy tenure as Martin’s

communications director and took a diplomatic appointment. Scott Reid, another Martin-circle insider, replaced him. Most reporters would not notice a difference because they had been ignoring Laguë and talking to Reid anyway. But Martin’s new PMO actually deepened the rift between Quebecers who didn’t know the rest of the country and anglophones who didn’t know Quebec.

Members of the Martin “board,” as the most steadfast veterans of his 1990 leadership campaign were called, were not prone to introspection. Led by Toronto financier John Webster and Ottawa lobbyist David Herle, they saw themselves as rough-andtumble political pragmatists. They swore a lot. They had never been shy about running an opponent off the road. They were aghast that the bloom of unabashed media adoration that greeted Martin’s arrival at 24 Sussex had faded so quickly. They were inclined to blame the coverage, not the man being covered, because they were Paul Martin.

They were far more interested in proving they were right than in wondering whether that was true.

As the parliamentary session proceeded, Harper made himself the Liberals’ main tormentor in the daily Question Period. “It’s an unflattering and difficult job,” said Jason Kenney, the MP for Calgary Southeast. “I think he was probably getting frustrated with the limitations of an opposition leader’s job. Virtually the only chance to get into people’s living rooms is through the overheated theatre of Question Period, where the media rewards passion, phony or otherwise, and conflict.”

But in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition, a suite of cubbyholes one floor above the Prime Minister’s Office in Parliament’s Centre Block, Harper split his staff into two groups: issues management, to prepare the daily parliamentary theatre, and strategic planning, the election-preparation shop under Muttart’s direction. Every critic in the Conservative shadow cabinet was tasked with preparing policies to run on. “It was massive,” Norquay said. “And it took, you know, hours and hours and days and days. The critics brought their stuff over to committees and the committees took it forward to full caucus. And they had meeting after meeting and they hammered all this stuff out.” The caucus policy recommendations went to regional policy meetings and, from there, to the national Conservative policy convention in Montreal in the spring of 2005.

Throughout this process, the instincts of grassroots Conservative party members and of the party’s most powerful political strategists were, by and large, identical: hug the political centre. Don’t let the Liberals paint the party as extremist. Harper gave a speech at one regional policy meeting, in Vancouver. When he left, Norquay stayed to listen to the debates. “It was people at the microphones, arguing about policy. And it was people saying, to anyone who got too far out, ‘Hey ass-

JOHN HOWARD'S VICTORY IN AUSTRALIA WAS THE MOST INSTRUCTIVE EXAMPLE OF CONSERVATIVES AGGRESSIVELY CAPTURING MIDDLE-CLASS VOTES

hole, I think I’d like us to be government. Why don’t you just take that and stuffit?’ ” Harper and Tom Flanagan might have phrased it more delicately, but they shared the sentiment. “Politics is not a seminar, winning power is not the same as making debating points and half a loaf is better than no bread at all,” Flanagan wrote in the National Post in one of his few public pronouncements since Harper became Conservative leader. “Activists and thinkers in the conservative movement should work to ensure that the Conservative party is positioned to the right of the Liberals on major issues,” he wrote, “but they must remember that staying reasonably close to the median voter is essential for winning elections.”

Harper’s long road from June 28, 2004, to Nov. 28, 2005, had two more landmarks on it. The first was the turmoil around the May confidence vote, when Harper tried to bring down the Liberal minority with only the Bloc Québécois to help. That was the moment of Belinda Stronach’s stunning defection from the Conservative caucus to the Martin cabinet. Conservatives now say the defection and the parliamentary defeat steeled their resolve. That’s a bit revisionist. At the time, it left Harper badly battered. “His lows are pretty low,” said Norquay, who departed Harper’s office soon after the failed confidence motion. “And by the time I left, he was really, really worn down and angry and bitter. And I didn’t think he could pull out of it.”

The second landmark was the odd mechanism this most introverted party leader chose to get out of his doldrums: a cross-Canada barbecue tour in the summer of 2005, accompanied by his wife, Laureen Teskey. “He needed to do it because he needed to show the media that he was doing it,” Norquay said. “Because the media was getting very, very close to writing him off.”

It was a gruelling trip, or at least as gruelling as an endless succession of summer barbecues can be. When she saw the schedule, Conservative Senator Marjory LeBreton shook her head. “Aren’t you even going to take one weekend off?” she asked Harper. “This is how I have to do it,” Harper told her. “Laureen said to me, ‘This is our last chance.’ ”

Harper’s summer of glad-handing got him pilloried in the national press. But it is surprising how many Conservatives now say it filled in the last missing piece of the pre-election puzzle for him. A man who had always been awkward in crowds developed more confidence and poise in the only way that has ever worked: he threw himself into a lot of crowds. “He was out there, getting positive regional and local media—and getting better as a retail politician,” Kenney said.

After the campaign began on Nov. 29, the first Conservative television ads were almost charming in their bargain-basement hokeyness. Harper and a blandly pretty actress sat at a desk, pretending to do an interview. She asked him a scripted question about pensions or taxes or government ethics. He recited a scripted answer. She invited him—well, actually, she barked a command— to look at a video screen, where a voter asked a second scripted question. Harper recited a second scripted answer.

The ads finished with a shot of a woman assembling the message “Stand up for Canada” on a mobile roadside sign, while a passing car beeped its horn twice. Beep, beep.

Even Conservatives made no attempt to hide their embarrassment. “But one of the things I learned in politics along the way was, effectiveness may not be in my eye as a

beholder,” Norquay said. “Example: there is an art to writing a fundraising letter. Have you ever seen a fundraising letter from a political party? It is the most hokey, stupid, hackneyed, badly written piece of shit. And it raises millions and millions.”

Perry Miele and the Tory admen were working on the same principle. In focus groups, the ads had been quite powerful in getting voters to retain the central messages. Even the little beep-beep was calculated: if you were making dinner with a TV on at the other side of the room, the car horn would make you look up, in time to see a Conservative logo.

“There’s a school of thought that we’re more Don Cherry than Giorgio Armani,” Tim Powers said. Powers is a burly Newfoundlander who often speaks for the Conservatives on television panels. “And the ads reflect that. Look at the success Don Cherry has had with Rock ’em Sock ’em Hockey, a lowtech production, but a messenger with a product people wanted. And he’s now in his sixth or seventh version of Rock ’em Sock ’em Hockey.” Seventeenth, actually.

By the second week of the election, both the Conservatives and the Liberals were convinced everything was going according to plan. And each was sure the other had made a fatal error. “We were coming into this expecting to get absolutely carpet-bombed on corruption,” a Liberal war room insider told Maclean’s at the time. “We expected to go down [in the polls] and then come back up.” Instead, the Liberal advantage over the Conservatives had held and even inched up.

Across the country, incumbent Liberal MPs looked at the polls and decided they’d been right to not even bother campaigning before Christmas. “It’s December,” Paul Szabo, the MP for Mississauga South, said. “It’s probably the busiest, most active time of year for families. They’re shopping, they’re going to parties, they’re preparing things. They don’t want you in their face.”

Powers said the Liberals were missing things they would regret later. “People are starting to pick up on it now, but Harper’s been the first person up, every morning, for the last two weeks,” he told Maclean’s two weeks into the campaign. “He’s won the news cycle as a consequence of that.” And many of Harper’s announcements were aimed at young families. “You had a child care announcement, an announcement about small business, and an announcement about sports enrolment tax credits for kids,” Powers said. “In each of those cases, Harper referenced his young family. Two kids, average guy. It defines him as a human and not scary.”

In 2004, Harper had spent his first campaign flying most mornings. Almost inevitably he would land on the defensive, facing questions about something Paul Martin or Jack Layton had already said. So now Harper flew to his next destination in the evening and got up early to be the first on TV. As for the broad opening strategy, Harper had been counselled to begin the campaign by carpet-bombing the Liberals on the integrity question. “Most advice would tell you, spend three weeks softening up the Liberal vote and move it to undecided,” Kenney said. “The big strategic call was, don’t bother. Go straight to policy. That was pretty ballsy. And it was all Stephen.”

Even though they were surprised, most Liberals were unimpressed. Policy-a-day “might work well in April but I think he’s getting caught in the ho-ho-ho season,” Roger Gallaway, the incumbent Liberal MP in Sarnia-Lambton, said. “It’s just not penetrating.” Still, a few on the Liberal campaign were worried. “The fact that people are starting to debate the issues and not Stephen Harper is not good for us,” another war room insider said. So in the second week, Paul Martin started making his own announcements. In New Brunswick, he said the Liberals would double the length of their five-year child care program. In Montreal, he spoke to the global conference on climate change. In Toronto, he announced a “Canada handgun ban” while David Miller, the city’s mayor, stood beside him.

But there was an element of virtual reality to Martin’s announcements. In Montreal, he scolded the United States for flouting the “global conscience” on climate changeeven though Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions have grown far more quickly than the Americans’. Martin’s extra daycare spending wouldn’t begin to flow until 2009, probably after the term of the government Canadians were about to elect. And experts were quick to point out that Martin’s handgun ban would not be effective because it left too many loopholes for collectors, hobbyists, and entire provinces to opt out.

The Conservatives, on the other hand, kept avoiding chances to put their collective foot in their mouth. The 2004 campaign had barely begun before two Conservative MPs had made controversial comments. Alberta’s Rob Merrifield said women should seek counselling before getting an abortion. Ontario’s Scott Reid, as loose-lipped as his namesake in Paul Martin’s PMO, had called the policy of official bilingualism into question. Liberal strategists admitted Martin’s handgun ban was designed to goad Conservatives into the same kind of outburst. “It absolutely is a wedge issue,” one Liberal said. To goad the Tories, the Liberal campaign leaked news of the announcement to several news organizations the night before Martin’s Toronto event.

Harper’s beat-up crew had anticipated a moment just like this. Tom Flanagan headed a Conservative war room, in the dingy

Ottawa offices, that put a high premium on enforcing discipline, not just on the candidate’s plane but across the country. The war room had a separate telephone number for “candidate support.” Nearly a dozen campaign staffers were assigned to candidate support from early in the morning to late at night. Candidates had standing orders to call the hotline when any news outlet requested an interview about anything. A pre-interview conference call would ensue, with the candidate being coached long-distance by campaign staffers on policy and media relations. These sessions could last a half hour.

When news of Martin’s handgun “ban” leaked, the same process worked in reverse. The Tory war room telephoned candidates across the country, urging them to stand down and make no public comment until Harper had had a chance to set the tone himself the next morning. Meanwhile, the war room researchers worked overnight, gleaning details of Martin’s announcement from the premature news accounts and lining up arguments against it. In the end, a Liberal campaign insider said, the handgun announcement was “not the 100 per cent hit” they had hoped for.

“The first two weeks,” Kenney said, “we’re watching the news at night saying, ‘What is this? We won this day free and clear. What do the other guys have up their sleeve? Tomorrow must be a big day for them.’ ” And it never was. “We got the message out. And they didn’t. Day after day.”

Which made the first big gaffe of the campaign so destabilizing when it arrived. Especially because the gaffe came from two Liberals.

Scott Reid and John Duffy are originalbrand Martin board members, Class of1990. Duffy operates at long distance, from Toronto, where he is a lobbyist and the Martin camp’s semi-official historian. He wrote a fine book, Fights of Our Lives, about Canada’s most important national political campaigns. Funny, sharp as a tack, ostentatiously welldressed and full of bluster when he gets into an argument, Duffy had little regard for his Conservative opponents.

“Like a bad golfer who curses the game for being too hard, Conservatives are prone in down times to grouse,” he wrote in the National Post two months before the 2006 campaign began. “They have a host of excuses for serial losing.. .‘We’re just too principled for this place. If only Quebec weren’t so... Quebecish. If only Ontarians didn’t keep an eye on Quebec’s comfort level. If only we just gave all the money to the provinces and let them do what they want. If only the set-up were different. If only the hole in the middle of the green were big enough for me to sink the ball there.’ ”

Scott Reid, Martin’s communications director, is famously hot-tempered. But most of the time he is cheerful and conscientious. So most of the time Ottawa reporters work well with him. And when he blows up, they have funny anecdotes to trade. It’s a kind of bonus. He didn’t really blow up on CBC News: Sunday on Dec. 11. He just let his brain get out ahead of his mouth.

The topic was the fascinating difference between Martin’s child care plan and Harper’s. Martin would send transfers to the provinces in return for high-quality, state-operated daycare centres for a fraction of the childrearing population. Harper’s would abandon such grand schemes and simply send each parent $1,200 a year for each child under 6. Martin’s plan emphasized formal structures for working parents. Harper’s emphasized choice: parents could stay home with their children, send them to daycare (and foot most of the bill), have Aunt May babysit part-time, or any other arrangement.

It was a classic clash of values and priorities. Each party found the other’s scheme appalling. “Working families need care,” Reid said on the CBC. “They need care that is regulated, safe and secure and that’s what we’re building here. Don’t give people $25 a week to blow on beer and popcorn. Give them childcare spaces that work.”

Later, Reid would say he had realized immediately that the “beer and popcorn” phrasing was a huge mistake. Before long, he would apologize profusely. So would Martin. Typically, the Martin campaign quickly settled on an adjective they would all use to describe Reid’s sortie: “Dumb.”

But John Duffy didn’t get the memo in time. Less than two hours after the CBC panel aired, Duffy did a panel on CTV’s Question Period. Tim Powers asked whether Duffy agreed with Reid’s beer-and-popcorn analogy. “Absolutely,” Duffy retorted. “There’s nothing to stop people from spending it on beer or popcorn or a coat or a car or anything.” The assumption behind the Liberals’ comments was that parents cannot be trusted to spend money in their children’s interest. It was an explosive accusation. Among precisely the working-class and middle-class voters the Conservatives were targeting, it would sound like government-knows-best nannystatism of the worst sort. The Liberals needed a distraction, fast.

And along came David Wilkins.

Wilkins is George W. Bush’s new ambassador to Ottawa. In person, he is a Southern charmer, swapping political gossip with visitors and sending them on their way with a can of boiled peanuts, a South Carolina delicacy of dubious culinary value. But as speaker of the South Carolina legislature, he delivered his state for Bush in the 2000 Republican primaries with a campaign of unparalleled nastiness against Bush’s main opponent, Senator John McCain.

Wilkins watched Paul Martin lecture the United States on greenhouse gas emissions. Wilkins knew that emissions from Canada have grown much more rapidly than those from the United States. And he watched Martin return two days later, flying in from Windsor, Ont., in a snowstorm, to share a stage at the Montreal climate conference with former president Bill Clinton. Wilkins, friends say, doesn’t like Bill Clinton. And he was not at all pleased that a sitting Prime Minister seemed intent on campaigning against the administration he represented.

Martin’s Montreal appearances were on Wednesday and Friday, Dec. 7 and 9. That weekend, Wilkins sat at home alone and hand-wrote a 20-minute speech. He delivered it on Tuesday, Dec. 13, to a lunchtime crowd at Ottawa’s Fairmont Château Laurier. His theme would have been familiar to Benjamin Franklin: don’t tread on me.

“It may be smart election-year politics to thump your chest and constantly criticize your friend and your No. 1 trading partner,” Wilkins said in his fabulously languorous Southern drawl. “But it is a slippery slope,

and all of us should hope that it doesn’t have a long-term impact on the relationship.” There was more. “What if one of your best friends...demanded respect but offered little in return?” he asked. “Wouldn’t that begin to sow the seeds of doubt in your mind about the strength of that friendship?”

What happened over the next few days could only happen in Canada. Liberal support, which had been sagging, took a bounce. Martin had once campaigned for the Liberal leadership on a promise of a “more sophisticated” relationship with the U.S. Now he was as sophisticated as a comic-book hero. He showed up at a B.C. lumberyard, wearing a leather jacket and talking tough about the Yankees. “I’m going to call them as I see them,” he said, jaw thrust forward. “I am not going to be dictated to.” Wilkins, who had asked only that the United States be left out of the campaign, was pilloried for sticking his nose into it. Funny way to punish Martin: he had given the Liberals a tidy little boost.

Amid all this, a veteran U.S. official took a telephone call from Maclean’s. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said Wilkins cared very little about the effect his speech might have on the election’s outcome—although he had taken pains to speak up before Christmas, so any uproar might have time to die down. “He would not have thought of doing this after Christmas,” the official said.

Wilkins’s message was not to the Liberal leader or to any other campaigner. It was to the Canadian state. “We are not going to watch the U.S. get pummelled anymore,” the official said. “Whether or not there is a campaign on, we’re not gonna take it.” Wilkins hoped any controversy might die down by voting day. “But we’re not going to not respond. This is not a field day at our expense.”