LAC MEGANTIC,, Que. — Tom Mulcair looks remarkably relaxed and content for a man whom pollsters and pundits predict may be headed to the political gallows on Monday — and not all of the shaggy grin is the polish of a seasoned politician.
He smiled, joked and even mimicked the grumbling of one his senior staffers during an interview late Friday with The Canadian Press, which may be somewhat surprising for an NDP leader whose party rode a wave of Big Brother anti-terror fears and Senate scandal to the top of the polls early in the campaign, only to have the lead evaporate.
Earlier in the week, he joined in a chorus of his favourite song — A Day in the Life by The Beatles — on a long cross country flight. Before each speech he gives his wife Catherine a quick kiss.
By rights, at this point in the campaign, you would expect him to be throwing the chairs around, at least behind closed doors. The NDP, as he likes to tell partisan crowds across the country, has never been so close to power.
If the polls are to be believed, the party, which steered itself to the centre of the political spectrum in order to gain acceptance and electabilty, is about to drive off a cliff and land back in third spot where it had — until 2011 — languished for half century.
In fact, he told the reporters interviewing him to remember where they were — in the rebuilt basement of the famous music club destroyed in the Lac Megantic rail disaster — when he predicted without the blink of an eye that in three days hence the NDP would actually form government.
Where is that moment of optimism coming from?
Some of it is clearly posturing. Because — in all honesty — what else is he going say? But if you listen carefully he's talking like a doctor who is trying to convince a patient to quit smoking.
"People have to sense that you have confidence," he said. "Part of this is about me giving Canadians enough confidence in themselves to be able to break a 148-year-old bad habit, and to talk to them."
The problem is not with the NDP policies or its message because, as Mulcair noted, one of the things he's learned in the campaign is to "remain faithful to yourself (and) your ideals." The problem is that Canadians don't believe they can elect an NDP government.
"Because they have confidence in the NDP. They know us. They know as a party with strong values that represents Canadians and has been there for the long term," he said. "But now I have to communicate also to them that they have to have confidence in themselves for the final stretch on Monday that they can break that bad habit, that they're not stuck with the Liberals and Conservatives (for eternity), that they can move to something better, which would be an NDP government on Monday."
On paper, the campaign turned for the NDP in mid-September when Mulcair was forced to defend a woman's right to wear a niqab in a citizenship ceremony from blistering Conservative attacks, both inside and outside Quebec where the issue is politically toxic.
It was Stephen Harper's great "distraction" from his record, he said.
The poll numbers have only just begun to stabilize as the NDP has taken hold of twin life lines — opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and the resignation of Liberal campaign co-chair Dan Gagnier under a cloud for his connections to the oil patch.
Mulcair's full-throated pledge to renegotiate the deal is a reminder of the "old" NDP, the left-of-centre workers' party that opposed both Brian Mulroney's free trade with the U.S. and NAFTA. Bashing the Liberals over Gagnier gives him the opportunity to remind voters, in his Quebec power base and elsewhere, that Canadians turfed them a decade ago.
The NDP's push to the centre, particularly with Mulcair's balanced budget promise, is widely believed to have driven progressive voters over to Justin Trudeau's Liberals.
But Mulcair does not believe the progressive vote has left him. It's still there. Waiting.
The Liberals have tried to capture that vote, "but they haven't been able to succeed," said Mulcair, who listed off reasons for his faith.
He said he believes that progressives will remember the Liberals backed Bill C-51, the anti-terror legislation; the NDP's plan to hike taxes on big corporations; the party's opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, which was founded on the desire to process raw bitumen in Canada rather than export it; opposition to the TPP; and the Liberals' refusal to set specific greenhouse gas targets.
Maybe he knows something we don't know. The NDP is fond of saying it either won or ran second in 224 ridings in the 2011 election. And as late as Friday, polling from Ekos was saying that despite the slide in nationals numbers, the "rather efficient distribution of their support means they will likely still be looking at a fairly impressive seat count on Monday."
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