Politics·Analysis

Liberals won't get their expected cakewalk, Conservatives say after week one

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and party candidates say they generated strong momentum after week one on the campaign trail.

Party brass and candidates reflect on what they call a strong first week of the campaign

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and his wife, Rebecca O'Toole, greet supporters at a restaurant during an election campaign stop in Quebec City. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

During Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole's first week, his campaign plane touched down at the Winnipeg airport, parking right next to the aircraft carrying his chief rival: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

"I can't verify this, but we've been told it broke down already," O'Toole joked with his campaign team.

In a quest to move from Official Opposition to government, the Conservatives are flying high over what they believe to be a smooth, strong start to their campaign.

Senior campaign officials say they've had a good week  — and that the Liberals have not. Some believe the Liberals underestimated O'Toole when they called this snap summer election - and that they won't have the cakewalk they may have expected.

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O'Toole has been Conservative leader for less than a year, and he's still relatively unknown to many Canadians. 

On the second day of the campaign, he launched the full Tory platform — called the "Recovery Plan for Canada" — so voters can see what an Erin O'Toole-led government would look like. It also showed a different side of the leader — a cover for the document for which  O'Toole, who upped his fitness training in the months leading up to the campaign, ditched the stuffy suit in favour of a T-shirt and jeans.

Looking casual while standing in a pose with arms crossed, many compared the image to the kind seen on the front of Men's Health magazine.

"It's got people talking. They know we have a plan. So that's been a high.  It's been a good few days. But we know we've got a lot of work to keep doing, getting Erin's name, face our message, our plan out to people around the country and here in Manitoba," said Candice Bergen, Conservative candidate for Portage–Lisgar (Manitoba)

The Liberal and Conservative campaign planes parked on the tarmac in Winnipeg on Friday. (David Cochrane/CBC News)

"I've said when people get the chance to see more and more and they're going to like him, they're going to respect him and they're going to see a competent leader," said Eric Duncan, Conservative candidate for Stormont–Dundas–South Glengarry (Ontario)  

This is the earliest policy platform launch in the party's history — and the candidates out door-knocking to sell it say it was a wise move.

"In all the elections I've been in, this makes my job so much easier as a candidate," said James Bezan, candidate for Selkirk–Interlake–Eastman (Manitoba)

"People that were sitting on the fence, I've already seen it on the doorsteps, are coming back to the Conservative Party because they're so happy with the platform."

Quebec Conservative candidate Alain Rayes (Richmond–Arthabaska) agrees. 

"It allows us to talk to everybody, because each citizen has its own personal preoccupation, issue, question. With this platform, we can answer all their questions from the beginning." 

The O'Toole campaign arrived at their Quebec City hotel on Tuesday night to more good news — a surprise majority government win for the Progressive Conservatives in Nova Scotia.

Earlier this summer, the Nova Scotia Liberals sent voters to the polls, hoping to be returned to power with a stronger mandate — as had happened in other recent provincial elections. But the plan backfired. The Iain Rankin-led Liberals became the first sitting government in Canada not to be re-elected during the pandemic.

"Wow, it's hard to put the joy into words," said Rob Batherson, president of the Conservative Party of Canada's National Council and National Councillor for Nova Scotia. 

"People are excited, they are energized, they really want to build on the momentum shown on Tuesday night. The fact that we defied the pundits, we defied the pollsters and won a PC majority, people are energized to replicate those gains in Nova Scotia to an Erin O'Toole majority government across Canada." 

But O'Toole's campaign hasn't been without hurdles.

On day one, O'Toole did have issues answering why he wasn't requiring his candidates to be vaccinated. The Liberals and NDP hope to make this a wedge issue by saying all of their candidates are, and they also promised that all federal workers and travellers on planes and trains will have to be vaccinated.

O'Toole is trying to balance supporters who see mandatory vaccinations as curbing freedoms with his own message about the importance of getting vaccinated. 

After trying to catch O'Toole out on the issue of mandatory vaccines, the Liberals went back to the wedge issue of abortion, pointing to a plank in the Conservative platform that would allow health care providers freedom of conscience regarding medical procedures they don't morally agree with. 

Insiders say he was prepared for the line of attack. O'Toole clearly articulated his pro-choice stance — something that his predecessor, Andrew Scheer, was unable to do.

Eric Grenier, polling analyst and founder of The Writ, says that while the Conservative polling numbers went up last week, much more needs to be done. 

"I don't think that O'Toole should be measuring curtains for the Prime Minister's office just yet," Grenier said.

A lot of the Conservative gains are in Alberta and the Prairies, but Grenier says that is simply regaining support they had lost and probably won't increase the seat count. 

He says the Conservatives need to pick up support in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec to start closing the gap and build a real advantage over the liberals.

"At this point of the campaign, the expectations are very low. Erin O'Toole wasn't very well known, not very popular. They have done a good job at just setting the foundation but they still have a lot more climbing to do before they think about winning."

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