Who is afraid of the Terminator now?

Keith Boag on the fears of the underdog.

Keith Boag is the Chief Political Correspondent for CBC News.

The first Terminator movie introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger as the buff, heavily armed, seemingly indestructible Series 800 cyborg assassin whose human disguise concealed a hard, metal endoskeleton with no feelings and no purpose other than to kill Sarah Connor, a pretty waitress working toward a college diploma and soon to become a single mom.

This Arnold Schwarzenegger Terminator 3 waxwork model was unveiled on November 28, 2003 in London. ((Bruno Vincent/Getty Images))
In the endless chase scene that is the movie, the Terminator regularly gets shot, often point-blank, with a range of weapons including handguns, machine guns, rifles and shotguns. It is blown up and run down. It is set on fire. 

Still, it gets up and carries on with its pursuit of the unlucky Sarah as though nothing has happened.

That is pretty much how Conservatives think of the Liberal party of Canada.

As one Conservative explained this week, "We can take the Liberal party down, chop it up into little pieces, pour gasoline over it, and take a match to it, but the next day it will be back at 30 per cent [in the polls]."

Liberals do have a stunningly resilient brand. Many Conservatives regard it with awe and continue to respect it as one of the most successful political brands in the world. They have learned this respect first-hand through bitter experience.

As Bob Plamondon, a Conservative himself, reminds us in his book Full Circle: Death and Resurrection in Canadian Conservatives Politics, between 1900 and 2006 Liberals held office for 75 years compared to the Conservatives’ 31.

That is an extraordinary history of Liberal success and Conservative frustration.

Plaint of the underdog

And so, notwithstanding a new round of public opinion surveys that show Stephen Harper’s party out in front, many Conservatives go into this campaign feeling as though THEY are the real underdogs. They believe they have to work harder than Liberals just to keep up, even now.

What’s more, at the first sign of rough water ahead, many come down with the heebie-jeebies.

One example: A couple of weeks ago, Stéphane Dion tested some lines about a private member's bill from Conservative backbench MP Ken Epp that proposed to make it a criminal offence to harm a fetus while committing a violent crime against the mother.

It might be a trick "to criminalize abortion by the back door," said Dion.

Uh-oh. At Conservative headquarters the lights dimmed and a suspenseful soundtrack swelled until Justice Minister Rob Nicholson was sent roaring down the street to Ottawa’s National Press Theatre to make an urgent address to the nation.

Nicholson announced the government would replace Epp’s bill with one of its own that would "punish criminals who commit violence against pregnant women, but do so in a way that leaves no room for the introduction of fetal rights."

He did not remind Canadians that he and most of his caucus colleagues had voted in favour of Epp’s bill just a few months earlier. Much had changed since then, the main thing being the PM getting set for a snap election.

Nicholson’s real purpose, though, was to make sure Canadians heard him say this: "Our government will not reopen the debate on abortion."

Nothing to chance

Huge sighs of relief. Huge. Not from pro-choice advocates or women’s groups who seemed barely to notice — it had all happened so fast — but from Conservatives who thought they had become caught in the abortion snare yet again. And caught in the same old way again, by one of their own giving their opponents an opening.

What the incident really revealed was that old underdog insecurity.

Conservatives, ahead in the polls, their leader clearly recognized as the most capable of all, heaps of money in the bank, tons of resources on the ground, in short, everything going for them, and still they think, "Argh, we could lose this thing."

You can’t fault them for their prudence.

A turn at the tiller

But the fact is it will be more difficult for the Liberals to replay the old scary movies that served their political ends so well from 1993 to 2004.

Throughout those years, Liberals invested millions of dollars in caricaturing Conservatives as social reactionaries with a secret agenda on women’s rights, gay rights, gun rights. They didn’t actually say Conservatives would burn books, but the implication was left hanging in the air.

Then the Conservatives were given the chance to redefine themselves as a government and the Liberals, with internal problems of their own to contend with, let them.

For more than two and a half years.

The Liberal’s explained they wouldn’t defeat the government until they believed they could replace it, which is reasonable enough.

But now, the Conservatives have had more time in government than they ever dreamed — a two and a half year, on-the-job opportunity to prove they are as moderate, responsible and centrist as, well, the Liberals. Many would say they’ve succeeded.

Over the course of the next five weeks we shall see what, if anything, Conservatives have to fear from the Liberal brand this time.

But in the meantime, Conservatives may remember that at the end of the picture Sarah did outsmart the Terminator by maneuvering it into a giant crushing machine that compressed the homicidal cyborg into a sheet of tinfoil.< /p>

Then, of course, there was Terminator 2, Terminator 3, a Terminator TV series …