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The Insiders: Message Matters

And we're off.

The campaign is only five days old and the drama has already begun.

All party leaders have come out guns blazing with aggressive accusations and heated rhetoric. This is not surprising - every day in a campaign matters. Unlike south of the border, Canadian elections are short - only 38 days.

Because the campaign is so short, Canadians are bombarded with messages from minute one. This makes it essential for leaders and their parties to be on message at all times. So far, we've seen varying levels of success among the four major federal parties.

Let's start with Ignatieff. He certainly hasn't been outperformed so far, but it does look like the Liberals fumbled the ball a little bit, right at the start of their campaign. This can happen to anyone. It wasn't until the third full day of the campaign that Iggy managed to deliver a clear and distinct message. Let's dissect that:

Friday, Ignatieff said he would not rule out the possibility of a post-election coalition. Saturday morning, he ruled it out and that became the "message of the day." Arguably, Ignatieff had strong momentum. Whatever political capital he may have garnered out of last week's parliamentary manoeuvre was quickly squandered by being oddly unable to answer an important but totally foreseeable question about the possibility of a coalition.

Ignatieff needs to do a few things moving forward. First, his campaign must insist on discipline. Staff and candidates must be put on notice: deviating from the script is not an option. Everyday should have a clear and concise focus. If the Liberals find themselves responding or reacting to the Tories, rather than driving their own message, they're playing catch-up.

Ignatieff has a real opportunity to bring his "blue door", "red door" analogy to life. He can and should give Canadians a more meaningful choice than a bucket of paint. Focusing on wedge issues is the only way to ensure his party isn't running on the defensive. Sadly for him, he does not have the automatic power of incumbency. If Ignatieff can connect with people using this analogy, however, there are plenty of "not Harper" people out there, looking for a person to vote for.

Now let's move on to Jack Layton. He's been steadfast in his efforts of positioning himself as champion of the underdog. His messages have been focused on providing for the "average Canadian." Despite this, his message doesn't seem to be resonating with Canadians. It might be because we're not in a deep recession this time around. Or perhaps it is because voters have heard it all before. This is the third time that Jack Layton has proposed lowering credit card interest rates. Few leaders would attempt to recycle policy so obviously. His challenge now is to demonstrate to Canadians how this could become a reality. The NDP has an opportunity here. As some people are still feeling the crunch of the economy, they might be romanced by the ideas of the feisty NDP leader.

Gilles Duceppe made a very interesting play this week. Of all the political leaders, he may have come out with his guns a bit too blazing. He decided to go head to head with the Prime Minister very early on in the campaign by calling him a "liar." He has a lot to gain if he's able to shut out the federalist parties in this election. However, one must ask, where does he go from here? Normally in a campaign, you save the nuclear option for that moment when it's vital - it will be difficult to increase the volume later, when he began at full blast.

Harper's Conservatives are at automatic advantage as the governing party. They have the "bully pulpit." In previous campaigns, he's made it his signature approach to used policy proposals to put the opposition on the defense. This time around, he decided to use fear: namely, evoking a three-headed monster - a Liberal-NDP coalition, supported by the separatists. Harper's team effectively baited the opposition - picking their battle ground and daring them come to fight. As a result, early campaign conversations have been dominated by themes of a coalition.

I am not sure this is where the Conservatives want to spend too much of their valuable time. The Harper government has demonstrated they are competent fiscal managers and the best choice to lead Canada out of the recession. This is the narrative the party should stick to. We've seen a bit of shift in this direction with the announcement of middle class tax breaks. We should see more of this. Further - and more dangerous - there is the chance that Canadians decide they don't mind the idea. Or at least they might be willing to give it a shot. If that is the case, the three-headed monster strategy actually backfires.

Elections are about choice. They are about clarity. Despite what some may think, in politics, this choice is not between good and bad; it's a choice between apples and oranges. If you're an apple and the first two days were about Vitamin C, you're losing. All parties have to be both aware and sensitive to this reality.
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