OTTAWA — Though you'd never know it from the campaign venues, one of the Conservative party's main goals in recent weeks has been not to overheat.
In an 11-week-campaign, the party contends, you can't have anyone burning out. Not your the leader, not the staff, not the supporters.
So during the week before the warm-up campaign was to give way to the real thing, events held on stifling factory floors were kept simple in style and content.
Local organizers were told not to worry about packing rally rooms, campaign officials say. In Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., only a few dozen people were in a room so hot it lulled some to sleep.
There's only so many times a person will come to a political event, campaigners reason, and in the next six weeks there are going to be hundreds of them — better small rooms now than being unable to fill bigger rooms later.
They weren't exactly prepared then when a few hundred extra people than expected showed up at a rally in Abbotsford, B.C.
At least 200 people had to be seated behind the media, where normally there are just security guards and staff, while dozens more were left sitting on staircases and on balconies overlooking the factory floor where the event took place.
It gave the room much more energy than normal, amplified because some of the other routine was tossed aside too. Current area MP Mark Strahl sang the Canadian anthem and former cabinet minister Stockwell Day was allowed to skip the usual boilerplate intro in favour of something more personal and funny.
"I don't think I've had good applause like that since I stood up in the House of Commons four years ago and said that I was leaving," he joked.
When the campaign tries to create the personal touch it sometimes falls flat. At a rally in Delta, B.C., hand-made signs dotted the crowd. Upon closer inspection, most were likely made by the same hand, with a distinctive "R" at the end of Harper's name.
Despite the effort for the signs to create some down-on-the-farm charm, the rest of the set-up was made-for-TV. Massive pieces of farm machinery in a barn corralled the few dozen or so in attendance, nearly all directly connected to one of the nine Lower Mainland candidates who were present at the event.
It's a criticism often levied at the Conservative campaign, that the prime minister is not accessible enough to voters who may not have made up their minds as to whether they'll cast a ballot for him.
The party turns that around, arguing that if people are interested in hearing what he has to say, all they might need to do is say so — for an event in Ottawa that started the week, anyone who'd signed-up for the Conservatives e-mail list received an invitation.
Take the case of Yan Roberts. The North Bay, Ont., activist easily registered to attend the Conservative rally in that city. He is not a Harper supporter — when he took off his shirt to reveal another reading "Water Not Harper" and began approaching the prime minister at the end of the event, he was stopped by the RCMP and then willingly left the building with a campaign staff.
Harper may not interact with undecideds or the naysayers but he also doesn't personally interact much with the base either; candidates are offered a chance to have a photograph taken with him while he's in town, but not much more face time than that. Same goes for big donors in local cities, invited to pre-rally receptions for a grip-and-grin but little else.
But again this week, when the campaign went off script, Harper did something else he doesn't usually do — interact with the crowd.
A scheduled announcement on transit funding for Surrey, B.C., had been put off in the face of the Syrian refugee crisis. Harper ditched his TelePrompTer and gave an emotional speech on their plight. Midway through a sentence on the number of immigrants Canada welcomes, a man shouted out from the crowd: "I am one." Rather than ignore him, Harper engaged, asking where he was from, Uganda was the answer. Harper welcomed him, the crowd smiled.
It was a rare moment of personal connection, a feeling the campaign equally seeks to recreate when they put Harper out for photo ops. This week, Harper served coffee at a Tim Hortons and helped put blue icing on cup cakes at Marilu's Market, an independent grocery store in Burlington, Ont.
Two ladies getting their weekly deli order were surprised to see him. "Marilu is going to do good business after this," one said to the other, "especially now that it will be on the news."
It's the cup cake effect the campaign is after when it comes to getting voters too: showing up gets people talking and feeling good about casting a blue ballot.
Several people at Harper's final event of the week in Whitehorse said it matters to them that Harper has made the effort to travel North each year and during the campaign itself.
Marie McArthur said she wanted to return the favour.
"I came to encourage him," she said of her decision to attend the Friday morning rally. "I wanted to show him he has support."
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