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'Bubble boy' campaign may cost Harper majority

If Conservative leader Stephen Harper fails to win the majority he's looking for in Tuesday's election, or even loses some seats, his strategists will have to take a close look at whether his “bubble boy” campaign prevented him from connecting with voters.

In today's Globe and Mail, columnist Lawrence Martin observed that both Harper and Liberal leader Stéphane Dion failed to connect with voters, while the Green Party's Elizabeth May, NDP's Jack Layton and Bloc Quebecois' Gilles Duceppe all managed to get their messages to resonate better.

That may be true of how they fared in the televised debates and in national media coverage, but it's also a reflection of how they campaigned on the ground.

Take Victoria as an example. B.C.'s capital region has three ridings, with the Conservatives, Liberals and NDP each holding one. The leaders of all three parties had reason to visit, with hopes of holding onto seats they have now and of gaining others.

During the campaign Dion and Harper each visited the region twice, and Layton once. May did not visit, spending her time in B.C. in ridings in Vancouver, the Okanagan and Nanaimo where the Greens are more likely to be competitive.

While Layton and Dion each held events that were open to the public, Harper did not. Layton and Dion took questions from random attendees at their events and held fluid scrums with reporters. Harper, on the other hand, mainly took questions from the reporters travelling on his tour. He could have been at a hotel anywhere.

Harper's tight campaign is what one would expect of a front runner, trying to prevent too many gaffes. But in a contest where he's hoping to pick up votes and seats, it also makes him that much more disconnected from voters. That may well cost him.

Following are notes on each of those visits:

Dion, Sept. 13: The Liberal leader's first visit was a chaotic town hall style event at the University of Victoria. Hundreds lined up but were left outside the small lecture hall where Dion appeared. He took questions from the crowd and seemed relaxed, insisting on taking more questions even as his handlers tried to get him off the stage. Outside afterward, with a crowd gathered around, he scrummed with reporters, with the first part of the session reserved for local press.

Harper, Sept. 25: The Conservative leader touched down 12 days later for a short appearance at a hotel in the capital's tourist district. A small crowd of supporters gathered; even campaign insiders only got details of Harper's schedule a day ahead of the visit. The public was not invited. Harper read a speech then took questions from reporters who'd signed up on a list, mainly reporters from wire services and national media who were travelling with his tour.

Layton, Sept. 25: Later that day the NDP leader arrived for a better-advertised event at a local recreation centre. A few hundred seats were set in a rectangular pattern, putting Layton in the centre. He delivered an enthusiastic rally-the-troops kind of speech, then took questions, some of them confrontational, from the not entirely partisan public. Afterward he scrummed with reporters. Follow-up questions were allowed. Reporters riffed off each others questions for a relatively casual feeling exchange.

Dion, Oct. 6: The Liberal leader's second visit was an evening rally at a community centre packed with supporters and campaign workers. It was all thunder sticks and clapping. Dion gave a rally-style speech heavy on economics and light on the Green Shift. He did not take questions from attendees or reporters before getting back on his bus.

Harper, Oct. 8: Harper's second stop was very similar to his first, another morning event at another tourist district hotel, just steps from the one he appeared at last time. No public, just a small room full of campaign workers and supporters. He read a speech then took 10 questions from reporters. Nine were from national reporters touring with him, one was from a local reporter.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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