Like old times

Liberals in Saint John, N.B., stopped swallowing pancakes long enough for a call-and-response moment with Stephane Dion this morning, chanting back the name of a Tory leader they really loath. That would be… Brian Mulroney. It was one of three moments in the morning campaign event that stood out for me, each suggesting a key element in Dion’s emerging strategy:

Run as an underdog. After being introduced by New Brunswick Premier Shawn Graham, Dion said, “I want to thank you because, against all the predictions, all the odds, you defeated Bernard Lord… Let’s say that you are an inspiration for me.” The crowd laughed through their pancakes at Dion’s appealingly self-deprecating tone. But some must have been thinking: Shawn got two cracks at the Tories, losing in 2003 before his 2006 triumph; Stéphane, this is likely your only kick at the can.

Run against Brian Mulroney. Dion rhymed off three sets of economic statistics in a bid to link Harper’s economic management now to Mulroney’s in the much tougher economic times of the early 1990s. Economic growth trailing the other G7 countries, nine months of labour productivity declines, summer job losses—Dion said all echo the Mulroney era. But does Mulroney’s name still resonate as ominously as it did in, say, 1997, when Jean Chrétien’s election team started evoking it at every opportunity as they scrambled to salvage their weak campaign in the final 10 days of the race?

Run as the agent of change. In the U.S. presidential race, John McCain has refused to let Barak Obama have the change message all to himself. But in Canada, Stephen Harper appears willing—maybe he has no real choice—to give up this usually potent theme to his main adversary. So this morning Dion targeted Harper’s stay-the-course message, calling the Tories “fossilized,” in a rather forced play on words off his own promise to promote more efficient use of “fossil fuels.” He’ll need to work on his lines, but the underlying message has potential—unless Harper succeeds in getting Canadians to equate “change” with “risk.”

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