Harper's disciplined campaign lacks enthusiasm for the electoral fight so far

Money can’t buy you love, or happiness, and the end of the first week of campaigning for the May 2 election left the impression Stephen Harper was still looking for both.

His party is rolling in cash and if it weren’t for federal election spending limits, $21 million for this campaign for any party that fields candidates in all 308 ridings, the Conservatives could be blanketing the country with attack ads 24/7 on every channel, everywhere, not just selected garden and home shows, NHL games and afternoon soaps.

But veteran journalists, like former CTV news anchor Tom Clark on CBC Radio’s The House Saturday morning, have noted the Harper campaign tour lacks the kind of breezy joy you would expect from a guy whose party is leading in every poll that’s surfaced since last weekend, including at least two suggesting Harper may finally be on the cusp of the majority he’s been after for years, maybe a couple of decades and certainly since he first led the new Conservative party in an election in 2004.

A nightly tracking poll Nik Nanos is doing for CTV and The Globe and Mail shocked everyone with its 32 per cent for the Liberals four days into the campaign, but the Nanos numbers put the Conservatives at 41.3 by Friday night, with the Liberals down slightly to 31.7 per cent, definitely brushing the Conservatives close to majority territory.

Still, the firefight with the press corps in Halifax, where reporters were kept exactly 43 feet away from Harper for one of his news events, the distance later measured by one of the journalists, and the limit of four questions, two in English, two in French, for each campaign event, provided plenty of evidence the mood is dark on Harper’s plane.

The week actually began with tweets reporting arguments between the news hounds and Dimitri Soudas, the communications pit bull who is the latest in a string of Harper communications directors over the past few years.

In contrast, Michael Ignatieff was relaxed, benefitting from a year of tutoring and guidance from Peter Donolo, nominally Ignatieff’s chief of staff but in fact his chief communications guru, his track record including Jean Chretien’s near-perfect 1993 campaign, when Donolo turned Chretien from ‘yesterday’s man’ into a national version of the Little Guy from Shawinigan who could put pretty well anyone at ease over a beer in the neighbourhood pub. In fact, cases of Moosehead played a feature role in one of the photo ops during that campaign.

Harper tried that this week, drawing a stein, but it didn’t really come close to the new, folksy version of sleeves-rolled up Ignatieff, who appeared to sincerely enjoy a joke with one of the most earnest journalists covering his campaign, National Post columnist John Ivison, over Harper’s waterfront fracas with the tweeting pack.

Getting back to money, it is possible that may have been at the root of Harper’s sombre note at the end of the week, when he highlighted one of his pet peeves, likely the very last thing on the mind of most voters after the apparently fragile economy, the debate over whether Ottawa should spend billions of dollars on new stealth fighter jets from the U.S  or on daycare and health care, which Nanos reports is the leading concern among voters when they’re not prompted with a selection of choices.

It was Friday, April 1, and Harper drew attention to his goal, this time a campaign pledge, that he will eliminate the $2-a-vote public subsidy for federal political parties if he gets his majority. The last time he made that promise, in November, 2008, it sparked a huge outcry from the other parties in the Commons and led, primarily, to the short-lived opposition coalition that Harper is raising as the scare factor in this campaign.

April 1 happened to be the day Elections Canada announced it had paid all parties their subsidy for the first quarter of 2011 – the Conservative party received $2.6 million as its allowance, a much more friendly term than subsidy, raising as it does the image of handing over a few loonies to your children on Friday, the Liberals received $1.8 million, the NDP received $1.26 million, the Bloc Quebecois received $691,289, probably the most irritating burr under the saddles of Conservative supporters on this topic, and the Green Party received $469,686.

Oddly, Harper added another reason to his list for opposing the payments, saying they are likely the reason Canada has had so many elections over the past few years, four since 2004 to be exact. But his argument doesn’t really add up.

The first in the election series, in June, 2004, was called by Paul Martin, basically to give him a legitimate claim to 24 Sussex Dr. after he succeeded Jean Chretien as party leader and prime minster.

Harper himself, along with the other opposition parties, instigated the next election, defeating Martin’s government in November, 2005, after initial revelations from an inquiry into the Liberal sponsorship scandal in Quebec.

Harper himself abruptly called the next election, held in October, 2008, after he met the three opposition leaders privately the previous month and came away declaring he was convinced they were not going to be nice to his government in the Commons or be cooperative with his legislative plans and in House committees.

That year, 2008, Harper’s Conservative party raised $21.2 million in individual contributions, the Liberals, in the lingering aftermath of the sponsorship affair and led by the intellectual Stephane Dion, doomed from the start because of his inability to connect with voters, doomed even more in Quebec for his stubborn fights with sovereigntists, raised only $5.8 million, and the NDP raised $5.4 million.

Had it not been for the public subsidies, established by Chretien after he banned political donations from corporations and trade unions, Harper might well have squashed the other parties like bugs in the 2008 election, if not then perhaps the next time.

That would have been this election.

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