Is Stephen Harper a hologram?

Rick Mercer on what he learned on the campaign trail with the party leaders

Is Stephen Harper a hologram?

Chris Wattie/Reuters

Grown men all over North America pay big money for the privilege of riding on a horse, sleeping on the ground and spending 12 hours a day driving cattle down a dusty trail with actual cowboys. For me, going out on the campaign trail, riding on the planes and following the leaders is pretty much the same thing. This wasn’t so much an assignment as it was a trip to a dude ranch. Some men want to strap on leather chaps and breathe in the aroma of cow dung; I want to slap on a press pass and breathe the same air as Harper, Iggy and Jack.

To get a seat on those planes is not an easy proposition. The Conservative party charges media organizations $50,000 for a seat. In return you get fed and watered—after that, all bets are off. There is no guarantee you get to ask a question, just the guarantee you won’t.

My week at the dude ranch started with the big gun: Team Harper. I met up with them in Rivière-du-Loup, Que., rode the bus to Edmundston, N.B., flew to Fredericton, crossed the pond to Conception Bay South, Nfld., back to Sydney, N.S., and then on to the Nation’s Capital.

In hindsight, I spent too much time with the front-runner. To get a feel for the Harper campaign you only need a few hours. The differences from one event to the other are minuscule. In English Canada they start each event by singing “O Canada,” and Stephen Harper tells the crowd he’s proud to lead a party that starts every event this way no matter where they are in the country. In Quebec they skip this part and they hide the Canadian flags in the plane. Barring this nationalism of convenience, if you have seen one Harper event you have seen them all. The Harper campaign is far and away the most disciplined, the most professional and the most scripted. Every word is on a teleprompter, it is delivered in exactly the same way, and the Prime Minister does something I have, in a lifetime of watching live performers onstage, never seen before: he actually stops and sips his water in the same spot every time. Nothing is left to chance. Either that or he is a hologram on a loop.

My first Harper campaign event in Quebec was held in a senior citizens’ home, what we in show businesses call a captive audience. No vote mobs here.

Politics is a dirty racket, and certainly all politicians on occasion must do things they find personally distasteful, but I would like to think that most of them would draw the line at scaring old ladies. No such luck on this tour.

It’s one thing to put ominous, spooky commercials on TV during the Juno Awards, but to actually show up in a seniors’ home and tell the residents that the world is a scary, evil, dangerous place and that “chaos is lapping at our shores” without so much as a warm- up joke or a pleasant story takes a real commitment to fear.

The promise to write off a portion of their gym membership starting in 2014 might have taken the edge off, but I didn’t feel it in the room.

And then it was cue the music and head for the door.

This is another thing I learned about Stephen Harper: he loves to head for the exit. It is a cliché and a fact that during a campaign every successful politician is a security detail’s nightmare. Once a campaign starts, politicians of all stripes basically say to hell with the RCMP and they wade into crowds, lean down from the stage to shake hands or run across streets to speak to groups of strangers. It would have taken the strength of a thousand men to stop a Ralph Klein, a Jean Chrétien or a Brian Mulroney from glad-handing a crowd during a campaign stop. To them that personal interaction is like a shot of pure adrenalin into their veins. Stephen Harper is that rare breed of politician: he is a security detail’s dream. Even in a room of just 75 seniors, there is no wading into the crowd for this guy. To ask the Prime Minister to do that would be like asking Superman to dive into a pool of liquid kryptonite. Even if he wanted to, he just couldn’t. The damage to his system would be too grave.

And so day one could be summed up this way: “Scare some seniors, go to lunch, repeat.”

It was during lunch that I became reacquainted with the Tories’ not-so-secret campaign weapon, the ever-present Sen. Marjory LeBreton.

LeBreton’s job is to “assist the media.” This is a nice way of saying she never leaves them alone and listens to every conversation they have. She is a legend in Conservative campaign circles; she has been on practically every leader’s tour since the Diefenbaker days. She does not sleep, she does not take nourishment.

On this day, while reporters were shovelling back snack packs of takeout chicken and wet-napping the grease off their keyboards, Marjory went from one reporter to the next, eyes darting across laptops, loudly declaring that “ooo that smells good,” “mmm those french fries are delicious,” and “isn’t this the best chicken ever?”

This is the Conservative campaign strategy in a nutshell. Make something up, repeat it enough and eventually people believe it. A separatist coalition is coming, only Stephen Harper can stop a $75 iPod tax that does not exist, and these frozen french fries in the little greasy bag are the best damn french fries a person could eat.

From my perspective, I could not have joined the Conservative campaign at a better time. Events, as they say, occurred.

Brad Trost, a Conservative MP from Saskatchewan, reopened the abortion debate and Dimitri Soudas, Harper’s communications director, became a story himself when he was the subject of kickback allegations. Nothing has been proven of course, but when your campaign begins to resemble a subplot on The Sopranos that’s generally not a good thing.

And I will never forget the chilly Newfoundland morning when Stephen Harper faced not just a disappointingly low turnout, but a cantankerous teleprompter that left him standing on centre ice at a hockey rink in total silence for seven long seconds. Eventually our quick-witted leader said, “Jeremy, could you bring me my notes?” a sentence he kept repeating until Jeremy did just that. Thank God for Jeremy, because this mercifully allowed Harper to begin the same speech that he had given 50 times since the campaign began. Nine minutes later it was over: “Chaos is lapping at our shores,” “thank you and goodbye.” Later in that same rink Harper taped that night’s one-on-one interview with Peter Mansbridge; 24 hours later an Ipsos Reid poll was released suggesting a Harper majority. High above the skies of Eastern Canada a Conservative staffer wandered up and down the aisle of the airplane, white napkin over his forearm, serving champagne to all.

From there it was on to the Liberal campaign. Tragedy plus time equals comedy. Twenty-four hours after reports that the most successful political brand in the history of modern democracy was flirting with junk bond status was a perfect moment for all involved to look back and laugh.

Michael Ignatieff came on the plane, wandered to the back and welcomed the newcomers aboard. He inquired about someone’s mother and said he was looking forward to the rest of the campaign with a sense of serene optimism. I couldn’t help but note this is reportedly what victims of hypothermia experience in their final moments. He was wearing loafers, no shoelaces—just an observation, nothing more.

The differences between the Harper and Ignatieff campaigns are vast. With Ignatieff each speech is different, so you have to pay attention, and of course, perhaps the biggest contrast of all is that Ignatieff takes questions.

I have no idea if the general public is aware of or cares how few questions the Prime Minister will allow. I expect that they don’t care that if the Prime Minister rolls into a university town, student publications are not granted a single question. With Ignatieff the pendulum swings the other way—you can ask all the questions you want. From a journalist’s perspective it’s great, ask a question, get an answer; from a campaign’s perspective it’s a dangerous game, but a practice he seems committed to.

And then there was Prince Edward Island, where, in a curling club, Ignatieff showed off a set of skills I had no idea that he possessed. From a pure showbiz perspective he killed. Speaking without a teleprompter or notes he gave perhaps the best speech I have heard since watching Gen. Rick Hillier address the troops in Kandahar. Whatever happens, he has a bright future on the rubber chicken circuit.

Emboldened by the P.E.I. experience the Liberal team headed to the airport, and as luck would have it, minutes before takeoff our BlackBerries started buzzing—more polls, and more bad news.

I admit I had no intention of getting on the NDP plane. My plan, based on an astute political mind and decades of Monday morning quarterbacking, was to visit the Conservative and Liberal campaigns and ignore the NDP altogether. When news broke that the NDP had moved into first place in Quebec, I, like so many others, said a hasty goodbye and headed over to the NDP. The NDP in the lead in Quebec? I hadn’t heard anything as outrageous since 1979 when my older brother assured me that the dog up the road had kittens.

Karl Bélanger is Jack Layton’s senior press secretary. I have known him, not personally but professionally, for a very long time. He is from Quebec and he is a fixture on Parliament Hill. If you see Jack Layton on TV, look behind him and there is Karl. He’s been standing there for almost a decade. I do not know if in my entire life I have been as happy as Karl Bélanger was that night I hooked up with the NDP campaign. I was actually worried his head might come off.

At first I believed Jack’s new-found success among anglophone voters in Quebec could be attributed to the fact that in the French language debates his translator sounded like Sean Connery, but clearly it’s more than that. And while the crowds are larger than Jack is used to, Jack is doing exactly what he has done for almost a decade. I watched him get a rock-star response at a Sikh Khalsa Day celebration in Toronto, I saw him talk blue-collar issues for a boisterous crowd in Saint John, N.B., and finally parlez-vous them into a frenzy in Gatineau, Que.

And as I pulled out of the parking lot at week’s end only one thought was running through my head: why?

Diefenbaker was the last politician to cross the country by train. It was once a standard way of doing things, but campaigning by train became extinct the day the first political party chartered an airplane and began to charge the media to sit in the back to pay for the gas.

Since then the only consequential change to a leader’s campaign has been the introduction of the inflatable thunder stick. I think we can agree there is a special place in hell for whoever came up with that idea.

But times have changed. In a modern political campaign it is the air war that matters, the advertising matters, the debates matter, interviews matter, photo ops matter, but the leader’s campaign does not. It exists because it is a tradition.

My time with Harper on the road was excruciating for the Tories. Abortion, kickbacks, failed teleprompters and low turnouts—what saved the day was Harper’s successful high-profile interview with Peter Mansbridge.

Michael Ignatieff had the converse experience. He travelled the country and gave barn-burner performances, but when the lights came on in the studio with Mansbridge, Ignatieff dug up the corpse of the coalition and danced it around the room. A thousand speeches in a thousand hockey rinks won’t make up for that.

And Jack Layton is a great campaigner but a good speech in Gatineau doesn’t put the NDP in first place in Quebec. Jack made that happen on French debate night. Again, it’s the air war.

I’m glad I got to join the campaign this week, but now I view the national leader’s tour not just as a romantic notion but a nostalgic one. This was perhaps the most exciting week in politics in a very long time and I felt removed from the story, even though I was within 50 feet of a leader at any given point.

Very soon a national leader is going to make a quantum leap and launch a national campaign by staying home. He or she will enter a bunker in Ottawa and from there they will Skype streaming video into 10 curling rinks in 10 provinces in one night. They will hold a dozen town halls in a single afternoon. They will take or refuse questions from all over Canada from all sorts of people. By staying home they will reach more Canadians.

The national campaign as we know it will continue for the time being but I predict fewer journalists will spend less time on board. The parties, desperate for gas money, will have no choice but to fill those seats in the back of the plane with more tourists like me.

Rick Mercer’s column will appear each week during the election campaign

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