POLITICS

Stephen Harper, The No Surprises Leader, Playing To Win Yet Again

08/02/2015 05:22 EDT | Updated 08/02/2015 05:59 EDT

If Stephen Harper's rivals want to do some game analysis of what they're up against on the campaign trail, they should review the footage of his late May visit to Nova Scotia.

Here was the consummate politician — relaxed, funny, and self-assured as he paid tribute to Justice Minister Peter MacKay.

"I'm here in a reflexive state of mind," Harper confided to the crowd, before MacKay formally announced he wouldn't be running again.

"A mixture of tremendous pride and more than just a little bit of sorrow."

Even the distraction of MacKay's babbling toddler Kian in the front row couldn't knock 56-year-old Harper off his speech and its heavy dose of political messaging.

When he referred to MacKay's tenure as defence minister, he used the words "decade of darkness" about the Liberals before him. He spoke of "safe streets and communities," the party catchphrase for their approach to law and order.

And then just for the heck of it, he tried out a few election mantras, including a classic campaign chestnut: "strong, stable national Conservative majority government."

"So many governments are spiralling in debt, where in Canada we have a balanced budget, new investments, and tax breaks that put money into the hardworking hands of families and seniors," Harper said.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau may be more accustomed to the Harper of question period — aloof, dismissive, sometimes patronizing.

But after 13 years as a party leader and nine years in power, the man they're contending with knows a thing or to about the campaign trail. All that time in office has helped to develop rigorous message discipline and a self-confidence that seldom allows him to become rattled.

"What I pick up on is someone who is very comfortable in their skin, and has grown very comfortable in how he does his job," said Jaime Watt, executive chairman of consulting firm Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative.

"(He) understands that winning doesn't mean getting 100 per cent of the votes, and doesn't try to please all the people all the time."

Ontario MP Scott Reid has known Harper since the 1990s, when Harper was the Reform party's policy chief. At that point, the party had only a single MP in the Commons.

Reid harkens back to an old Holiday Inn motto, "the best surprise is no surprise," to describe Harper — someone who doesn't do things out of the blue.

"He's very methodical. For a guy like him, the hard thing was getting elected the first time," said Reid.

"He established a record of consistency, of being methodical and being someone who dots the i's and crosses the t's. It's the kind of virtue you'd see in an accountant or an economist...that's his secret. But it's an open secret, everyone can see it."

Harper's level of experience is precisely what the party is seeking to emphasize during this campaign, a formula that worked in 2011 and will be even more critical this election.

The Conservatives have spent a lot of time drawing up the contrast with Justin Trudeau — the serious statesman versus the "just not ready" tenderfoot leader.

After many years in office, Canadians have formed an opinion of Harper based on his actions and his reactions to events, said Watt. If the economy, militants in the Middle East and other security matters prove to be central election issues, it's important Harper remain consistent.

"What people need to know about him is that he's not going to change into the flavour of the minute or the flavour of the day, that they can count on him being who he's been all this time," Watt said.

"Some people will like that, some people will not like that very much, but other people will be able to say, 'Look, we know what we're getting, and we can buy that with confidence.'"

But there are flipsides to many of Harper's perceived strengths.

Next to Trudeau in particular, Harper may run the risk of appearing passe, negative, aloof. All that focus on message discipline and media control means he is rarely in situations with people who aren't identified supporters.

And then there are Harper's bleak speeches about the threat of Islamic extremism, the fragile world economy and "living in a dangerous world."

If Harper could tweak anything, it ought to be injecting some optimism into his messages, Watt suggested.

"He needs to focus on being more hopeful, and more optimistic and more positive about a better tomorrow," said Watt.

"I don't think that there's a market for an overly dour, sombre message. I don't think there's a big message for austerity and difficult times and buckling down."

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