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Are the Liberals really shaking in their boots?

By Jackson Murphy
web posted March 22, 2004

Stephen HarperThe new united Conservative Party finally has its leader in a shy 44-year old policy wonk named Stephen Harper. The only question remaining is whether or not this new leader will have the answers to years of vote splitting, gaffes, and political miscalculation on the right?

Saturday night was the "best possible result for Conservatives: the right candidate won, he won decisively, and he showed well in all parts of the country," writes Andrew Coyne on his website www.andrewcyone.com. "Harper's speech was workmanlike, at best, but it sounded the right notes: inclusiveness, combativeness, purposefulness. A democratic, market-oriented, moderate, socially just party that is ready to form a government."

Already Harper safely managed to navigate through the dangerous waters of a faltering Canadian Alliance party by helping to engineer a deal with the Progressive Conservative Party to create a single unified conservative party. That accomplishment shouldn't be overlooked.

More important is that Harper appears to be lucky. He is the right man in the right place at the right time. Plus the biggest boost to the new party, and now its new leader, has nothing to do with Harper at all and everything to do with the Liberal government. And if the Liberals are indeed cornered like angry rats, they will fight like caged animals too.

"They are going to attack us like we have never been attacked before. They will attempt to divide us," Harper told the audience during his acceptance speech. "They will attempt to open old wounds. They will do this because it is the only way they can survive. We cannot allow this to happen. We must unite as a team. We must unite behind our common ideology."

Like clockwork, the Liberals waited only about five minutes after Harper won the leadership before they begun to do exactly that.

"This is the death of moderation in the Conservative party in Canada," said Steven MacKinnon, deputy national director of the Liberal party speaking to The Canadian Press. "Stephen Harper is an extremist who's outside of the mainstream of Canadian political opinion."

It underscores the problem the new leader and party will have going into the next election. Never mind that Harper attempted to reach out to the softer side of conservatism, "We need the red Tory vision of important national institutions and sustainable social programs because the Conservative Party will never leave the vulnerable behind."

The possible embrace of red Tory values and support however cosmetic is almost certainly a key to electoral victory. But will former Alliance members really be able to stomach turning the party into a diverse party similar to the Liberals?

The good news is probably yes. Who else could they possibly vote for even if they find the new party's campaign talking points a little too much like the old Progressive Conservatives or worse a little to close to the Liberals?

While the new party has gotten a pretty good jump in the polls ever since the "Adscam" scandal rocked the government, that doesn't guarantee electoral victory for Harper. In fact the reality is that if the election is called sooner rather than later, the Conservatives could be simply a paper tiger.

"The new Harper-led party is nowhere in Quebec, shaky in the Maritimes, and at best a big ‘if' in the vote-rich ridings of Ontario. Even with all of the Liberals' political disasters of late, the Grits still hold a hefty lead in the polls," writes Greg Weston in the Ottawa Sun. "The new Conservative Party has candidates nominated in only about half of the country's 308 ridings, and its election machinery is still largely in pieces."

Already Harper is suggesting that he'd like to see a fall election rather than a snap one in the next few weeks. Time is the intangible; both sides need all the time they can get. On the down side, a lot can happen in such a long buildup to election. The Conservatives could stumble; the Liberals could weasel out of the scandal mess, or actually start regaining the public trust.

Characterizing the Liberals as quaking in their boots might be a huge misplay of the hand the Conservatives have been dealt. That is not to say that they won't win, or even that the Liberals can't lose, but the road is much more difficult than it seems. In essence the chips will all be in for this hand.

Jackson Murphy is a commentator from Vancouver, Canada. He a senior writer at Enter Stage Right and the editor of "Dispatches" a website that serves up political commentary 24-7. You can contact him at jacksonmurphy@telus.net.

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