Justin Trudeau's rise shows the benefits of being underestimated

From "not ready" to leader of the pack, at least in a couple of national polls, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has shown, if nothing else, a remarkable resilience, Michelle Gagnon writes.

Liberal numbers starting to rise in Quebec, too, and could yield crucial seats

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau strolls through Montreal's Olympic stadium during a campaign event yesterday. The battle for Quebec is heating up. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Faced with a crowd, Justin Trudeau's entrances tend to be as quick as his exits are slow. 

He charges in all man on a mission, taking confident, determined long strides. But on his way out, he lingers, lets himself be surrounded, touched, talked to. Then the ritualistic selfie.

At the 7,000-strong rally in Brampton on Sunday, the order was reversed. Trudeau made his way down the bleachers, engaging, glad-handing, playing out his drawing power in a fan-packed arena.

The net effect was a portrait of a man suddenly caught in a swell of enthusiasm, imagery reminiscent of another, earlier wave of Trudeaumania.

A staged event, to be sure, it was also physical evidence of the love-in for Trudeau that seems to have been building for a few weeks now.

So far, no other party leader has attempted to raise a crowd of this magnitude in this long campaign, making the rally a show of momentum building that has not gone unnoticed. 

As the Liberals have edged into a tight two-way race with Stephen Harper's Conservatives, the national press has taken to dissecting Trudeau's emotional intelligence, asserting his actual smarts and marking the difference between father and son with a photo montage of iconic moments that mix now and nostalgia to breathless effect.

This is sudden high-praise for a party leader discounted not so long ago as not ready. But perhaps fitting for one whose campaign appears to have been built on the power of reversals.

The long game

The first turning point came when the Liberals announced they would run deficits for three consecutive years.

An odd electoral gambit to pledge to go into the red (particularly after a long string of Conservative deficits), it would nonetheless set them apart with a commitment to invest in infrastructure, a compelling concept to many in a time of slow growth.

Part Keynesian economics, part power of positive thinking, the plan offered the first clue that the Liberals might be playing a long game, one designed to win a campaign but not necessarily every battle along the way.

The second clue came with the debates.

Harper and Trudeau spar over C-24 at Munk debate

7 years ago
Duration 0:45
Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper face off over Bill C-24 which allows a dual national to be stripped of citizenship if convicted of offences related to spying, treason or terrorism.

Going up against more experienced debaters, these events were meant to be Trudeau's undoing, live proof of his alleged shallowness. But he turned those moments to his advantage, too.

After a jittery performance in the Calgary debate on the economy, which left some people speculating that "he'd taken something" — an almost endearing accusation that would never be leveled against any of the other leaders — Trudeau got a grip.

In the foreign policy debate and the most recent French-language one, he showed he could hold his own, even best his opponents. Or, opt not to.

Trudeau's "mon amour" gaffe with Gilles Duceppe during the TVA debate last week made headlines, but it was another exchange between the two that was more telling.

While facing off against Harper, Duceppe started talking about Art Carney, sparking a Twitter buzz about the old Honeymooners comedian.

Oblivious to his error, Duceppe invoked Art Carney again in an exchange with Trudeau, who gently and respectfully said "it's Mark."

Unabashed, Duceppe offered the equivalent of "Right, Mark.", and motored on.

In a forum made for scoring points and debasing your opponents, taking the high road is rare, and suggests Trudeau is serious about his pledge to campaign on his platform, period.

And mostly, he sticks to the knitting: strengthen the middle class, better jobs, grow the economy, Real Change Now. Repeat at will.

It's a campaign plan that cuts both ways, though, and can leave Trudeau halting, deflecting, and appearing like he's not engaging head on with the issue of the moment, just searching for an avenue that will bring him back to his talking points.

Fear and division

The talking points, too, can be a bit of a problem. Whether it's Trudeau's early hedging on C-51, the Harper government's anti-terrorism act, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, the Liberal inclination to be both for and against something contentious can often appear unprincipled.

But in the context of an extremely close election campaign, the calculus is clearly all about appealing without alienating.

And the way the Liberals have handled the overwrought niqab debate shows how playing the long game can pay off.

Back in March, Trudeau argued forcefully against the proposed Conservative ban in a well-covered speech in Toronto. But on the campaign trail he's been more circumspect.

A heated exchange between Trudeau and Mulcair over water exports

7 years ago
Duration 1:06
Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair argue over Mulcair's record as Quebec's environment minister.

Having stood against the ban and for minority rights as enshrined in the Charter, Trudeau mostly refers to the niqab debate as "the politics of fear and division," laying that complaint at the feet of the Harper Conservatives.

And where Mulcair's defence of a woman's right to wear whatever she wants is seen to have triggered the NDP's fall in Quebec, Trudeau has emerged relatively unscathed.

According to a batch of recent polls, the Liberals are now outpacing the NDP nationally, and edging closer in Quebec, leaving Trudeau now at the forefront of the race to be the face of change.

The NDP's fall in Quebec has turned the province into an unpredictable battleground.

If the Liberals can sustain their momentum, they stand to retrieve some of their traditional red turf in Montreal, maybe even make inroads into its suburbs and deeper into the Eastern Townships, gaining a significant handful of seats that could make a difference in the long run.

At the big Brampton rally, Trudeau declared himself "a fierce competitor," which he may well be. He's taken a lot of hits, and as the new frontrunner should be bracing for a whole lot more in this final campaign stretch.

But like Jean Chrétien, another Liberal leader known for charging in, Trudeau has understood that there are benefits to being underestimated. 


Michelle Gagnon is a producer for CBC News. She covers domestic and international affairs.


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