08/28/2015 08:52 EDT | Updated 08/28/2016 05:59 EDT

Happy Harper Surprises Political Observers, Thrills Supporters

"He's enjoying the campaign trail and I think he's feeding off the crowd a little bit."


OTTAWA — If you believe polls, he's locked in a tight, three-way race to keep his job as prime minister.

If you've seen the recent economic data, he's facing campaign-trail attacks from rivals about whether he left the country ill-prepared for the global downturn.

If you've watched his public appearances over the years, Stephen Harper is widely known for being serious, very cautious and someone who only rarely strays from carefully crafted scripts.

So, why is this man smiling?

The Conservative leader caught political junkies, journalists and even members of his staff off guard Thursday at a rally in Hamilton, where a grinning, wise-cracking Harper delivered a lively stump speech to the delight of an energized partisan crowd.

A veteran Tory staffer claimed he had never seen Harper as fired up as he was at the event inside candidate David Sweet's packed, sweltering campaign office.

It was so uncharacteristic for Harper that one particularly animated moment even made a splash with meme-makers on social media.

He attracted attention with a teeny-weeny hand gesture used to mock Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's plan to run deficits as a way to kickstart the economy and ridicule his opponent about how small the shortfall would turn out to be.

"I guess it turns out the budget doesn't balance itself after all, but he'll run, he says, a modest deficit, a tiny deficit — so small you can hardly see the deficit," a sarcastic Harper said as he made the gesture, which drew laughs from the crowd of a few dozen people.

"That's what he says. A modest deficit and only for three years. Three deficits. Three modest little deficits and maybe $10 billion each."

His unusually peppy performance didn't stop there. Harper also put some extra mustard on the well-worn one-liners in his campaign stump speech.

It's unclear whether Harper is feeling heat of the narrow race, which could turn out to be his last act as prime minister.

Or perhaps he knows something others don't?

Conservative campaign spokesman Kory Teneycke claims the answer is straightforward: Harper is simply enjoying himself.

"In terms of what he said (Thursday), I don't think it's markedly different than what he was saying earlier in the day — I think he was just having a little more fun in the way he was saying it," Teneycke said in an interview.

"Why? He's enjoying the campaign trail and I think he's feeding off the crowd a little bit. We had a great event ... so I'm not sure I would read too much into it other than he was hot."

Harper also appeared to have extra energy elsewhere this week on the campaign trail, which took him through the Toronto area, Eastern Ontario and Quebec.

At a few rallies, he spent more time shaking hands and greeting partisans after delivering his speeches. Harper was even seen posing for selfies with supporters.

In Quebec City, Harper and his wife Laureen took the rare move of venturing out of their controlled campaign environment and onto a sidewalk in the Old City.

He chatted up people in a coffee shop and said "bonjour" to customers.

Teneycke says Harper likes visiting Quebec City and insists he's seen his boss as spirited as he was when he teased Trudeau about his economic plan with the gesture in Hamilton on Thursday.

"The prime minister has a very good sense of humour," he said. "But beneath the fun was a very serious point."

Asked if Harper was trying something new to give him an edge in the tight battle, Teneycke said there's still lots of campaigning left before the Oct. 19 election — about the equivalent of one-and-a-half traditional-length campaigns.

"Many people would say the race is yet to even fully begin," he said. 

"So, I think we're very comfortable with where we're at, but I'll leave the odds making to the pundits."

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