PETERBOROUGH, Ont. — Stephen Harper suggested Monday as he headed to Dean Del Mastro's former riding that he doesn't believe the electoral fraud convictions of his former parliamentary secretary will hurt the party.
The Conservative leader started the day delivering a popular message — touting his plan for a permanent home renovation tax credit — to a friendly crowd at a Home Hardware trade show in St. Jacobs, Ont., before wading into trickier territory.
Del Mastro resigned the seat in Peterborough, Ont., following his conviction for three electoral offences: overspending, failing to report a contribution he made to his own campaign and knowingly filing a false report.
He won the riding three times for the Conservatives by healthy margins, but now the enduring image of Del Mastro is of him being loaded into a prisoner transport van, shackled and handcuffed. He is out on bail while he appeals.
Asked in St. Jacobs if Del Mastro's convictions hurt the party, Harper wouldn't use his former parliamentary secretary's name.
"They're obviously an unfortunate reflection on the actions of that individual," he said after making remarks to the Home Hardware crowd.
"We have a good, strong organization of candidates and I'm very optimistic about that area. It has the same needs as the rest of the country, which is a government that is committed to growing our economy through lowering taxes, balancing our budget and making affordable investments."
A few dozen protesters were outside Harper's Peterborough event, some holding signs with images of Del Mastro, with a quote from the former politician praising Harper's ethics.
"If Dean Del Mastro's ethics, if they demonstrate to everybody what a Conservative ethic is in this time and place that's great," said protester Barbara Herring, carrying one of the signs.
"I hope it hurt the Conservative strength in the riding because I want to defeat Harper."
Two rally attendees, neither of whom wanted to give their last names, suggested Del Mastro's convictions did some damage done to the party, but they each still support Harper.
"I think it's made a lot of people very unsure," said Nancy, though she added that perhaps it made people unsure about the integrity of all politicians.
"I've always been Conservative but I do look at the person themselves," said Loraine.
The Liberals and NDP, however, were quick to connect Del Mastro's actions to Harper's judgment. In visiting Peterborough, Harper is "returning to the scene of yet another one of his scandals," the Liberals said in a press release.
The party connected Del Mastro to "a growing list of Harper affiliates" who have been charged.
Former Tory senators Patrick Brazeau and Mike Duffy have been charged with fraud and breach of trust. Duffy pleaded not guilty to 31 counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery at his trial, which is set to resume in November.
Brazeau's trial is scheduled to begin March 29, 2016. He has already pleaded not guilty.
He also pleaded guilty this month to reduced charges of assault and possession of cocaine after a more serious charge of sexual assault was dropped.
Sen. Pamela Wallin, who was suspended along with Brazeau, Harb and Duffy, has been under RCMP investigation but has not been charged.
Bruce Carson, a former top aide to Harper, is awaiting a judge's decision in his influence-peddling case.
"Birds of a feather flock together, as the saying goes," the Liberals said.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair noted that Del Mastro was Harper's ethics point man.
"There is something curious about Stephen Harper's choices," Mulcair said in Halifax. "People got to see Mr. Harper's ethics spokesperson in shackles being taken off to jail, so I don't think anything more needs to be said."
The NDP rolled out ads connecting Del Mastro and others to Harper even before the marathon election campaign began.
With an ominous soundtrack playing, the ads show the faces of a series of Conservatives who've been charged, convicted or investigated for various offences, including the senators, former cabinet minister Peter Penashue and Conservative campaign worker Michael Sona, the only person convicted for orchestrating misleading robocalls during the last election.
The ads wrap up with video footage of Del Mastro, shuffling in leg irons and handcuffs into a police vehicle.
Also on HuffPost