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The Insiders: When to go negative

Unlike the Harper Conservatives, there is a culture in the Liberal Party against negative (or what Jaime calls "comparative") ads. The Conservatives have run negative ads since before the writ was dropped and have never stopped, and will not stop until the campaign is over, if then. They enjoy them.

In 2004 our Liberal campaign team wanted to run some ads introducing Canadians to Stephen Harper the way we wanted people to meet him. The Bensimon Byrne ad campaign was called Stephen Harper Said, and it was stark, visually, with quotes of Harper's on-screen.  Before we could get approval to run those ads, I had to reassure a skeptical Prime Minister Martin, and convince his cabinet.  They were very effective, pre-writ.  In fact, the single worst mistake I ever made in a campaign was pulling those ads off the air when the writ was dropped and replacing them with policy ads, but the notion that we would start the campaign negative was not even considered. It was only after things got desperate that Liberals, even campaign insiders, got comfortable with the notion of taking the gloves off and responding to the negative barrage we were facing.

After the 2006 election, a culture of innocence took the party over completely, and Liberals, including leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff, swore off the use of negative ads. Sure enough, the Liberals have a negative ad out there, but most of their advertising is of the promotional nature, featuring Ignatieff and Liberal policy proposals.

That will change. The question is when. This campaign is now a third over. The Liberals have campaigned well, the earned media could hardly be better, and they have announced all their major policies - and they are at least nine points behind in the most favourable of polls. That is a big gap, and they now need to be thinking how to close it:

1. How to shrink the Conservatives from 38-40 range down to 33-35 range? That pendulum has swung the Liberals way over the past few years when people get uncomfortable with Harper's exercise of power and has swung the Conservatives way when people are thinking about the economy.

2. How to turn NDP voters into Liberal voters? NDP voters dislike the current government more than any other set of voters in country. If they are thinking about policy, they prefer the New Democrats to the Liberals. If they are thinking about the government, they prefer Liberals to Conservatives.

The Liberal strategy so far is likely not entirely driven by the culture of innocence. They may have felt they needed to introduce Ignatieff on their terms. They can probably feel comfortable that the tour can take on that job. They may have felt that they needed to fill in the blanks about what an Ignatieff Liberal government would stand for. But only advertisements aimed squarely at Mr. Harper's character and fitness for office have a chance to accomplish the two objectives outlined above.

The internal debate now will be when to go there, and how hard to go there. Stay tuned.