OTTAWA — For anyone forced to hear it more than once, the political stump speech can feel like the campaign-trail equivalent of Chinese water torture.
City after city, town after town, the ritual is repeated: raucous theme music, a leader mobbed by frenzied partisans, and a rally-the-troops address replete with the same broad themes, jokes and opponent-shaming zingers as the last whistle-stop event.
For Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it's a feedback loop of strong fiscal management, dire terrorist threats and economic perils that lie down a dangerous Liberal or NDP road.
But listen closely — in between the homespun bromides and partisan platitudes, the slow evolution of a campaign is discernible as handlers tweak the delivery of the core message, depending on the audience, the location or how the speech has been playing.
Early in the week, for instance, Harper was routinely referring to Trudeau as "Justin,"
a rather familiar reference that caught the attention of journalists.
"I think I use that sometimes, and sometimes I don't," Harper said Tuesday when asked about it. "That's how, in our experience, Canadians generally refer to him, because that's how the Liberal party has branded him."
Harper's speeches made no mention of "Justin" for the rest of the week. Indeed, in Thursday's televised leaders' debate, Harper called him "Mr. Trudeau."
Geography can also play a huge role in stump-speech adjustments.
Harper kicked off his campaign with a rally in Montreal's Mount Royal riding, home to one of Canada's biggest Jewish populations, where he described his party's strong public defence of Israel on the world stage.
He also tried to reach out to Quebec nationalists.
"For us Conservatives, Quebec nationalism — nationalism that does not lead to the impasse of separation — is not a threat,'' Harper told the Montreal rally in French.
"I ask you that in the next election to put this nationalism, this solidarity, at the service of a stronger Quebec at the heart of a government that's solid, stable, national, majority and Conservative."
Those messages were gone by the time he arrived in Kingston, Ont., a smaller, mostly English-speaking city that's home to a different crowd. Instead, there were statements that probably wouldn't have played well in liberal-minded Montreal.
"Let the other guys explain their plans for drug-injection sites in your neighbourhoods, for legalized marijuana and legalized prostitution, for ending mandatory prison sentences for even the most-violent criminals and for bringing back the ineffective and wasteful long-gun registry," Harper told a partisan crowd at a Kingston restaurant.
He also made another statement that might not play as well elsewhere in Canada: "We Conservatives will stand for responsible, environmental regulation that doesn't come at the expense of jobs and our economy."
In Ajax, Ont., defending Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state made a comeback — and elicited huge applause.
One message that always plays well with the Tory partisan crowds? That there's only one right choice for prime minister.
"It's not Mr. Mulcair and the NDP, whose high-tax, high-spending, high-debt ideology would wreck our economy just as it has wrecked the economy in so many countries; indeed, so many of our own provinces.
"(And) it isn't Justin Trudeau; he's just not ready," Harper said, a smile crossing his face. "I think I've heard that somewhere."
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