Dion's true enemy: his own caucus

Even a fake show of loyalty may be asking too much

Élections fédérales du 14 octobre 2008

WINNIPEG -With the federal election now prematurely fixed for mid-October, Liberal leader Stephane Dion today must motivate the party's most important audience -- his own MPs.
Attacking the Conservative record and hoping the air of change swirling above U. S. politics spills north into the Canadian campaign are critical to his campaign, but he must first dispel the lingering doubts about his leadership inside his own caucus.
If Mr. Dion could only eviscerate his opponents on the economy and articulate a lofty vision on the environment with Obama-esque style at this two-day retreat of Liberal MPs, he might be able to inspire a decent campaign launch this weekend.
The reality is that Mr. Dion is tongue-tied in English, is seeking votes for a major carbon tax that's growing in unpopularity and is backed by apprehensive MPs who first supported anybody else before they selected him as their leader in late 2006.
That makes for a less exuberant election kickoff.
There are about 70 seats at play nationally for the Liberals, most of them concentrated in Southern Ontario and Quebec. And for every potential Liberal gain, there's at least one likely loss to the Conservatives.
Unless the Conservatives crater, which is unfathomable under heavy-handed veteran campaigner Prime Minister Stephen Harper, or Mr. Dion has an equally implausible rookie-leader performance, a Liberal return to power has to appear the less likely outcome.
The great unknown is how Mr. Dion will perform under pressure, the likes of which he's never experienced before.
Surviving Question Period in the Commons is relatively simple, with a script at your fingertips, an hour of rehearsal in the backroom and the fact that it's easier to frame an angry question than dodge a real answer.
But performance is graded differently when the back of the campaign jet is populated by journalists watching every step for a misstep or listening to every speech for a misspeak.
It's not totally hopeless, of course. Those who have seen or written the Liberal playbook and platform insist both exceed outsider expectations. Star recruits running under the Liberal banner are promised, starting with yesterday's unveiling of former Regina police chief Calvin Johnston in the Saskatchewan riding of Palliser. And party number-crunchers have drilled deep into polling results to decipher a Liberal win over the Conservatives if their support holds.
The leader's tour sounds promising. An early version of the first week shared with me features a coast-to-coast blitz with pit stops in cities where Conservative skeletons are ripe for the rattling.
They want to link this government to the Maple Leaf processed meat contamination. That explains a possible event in Walkerton, Ont., where former premier Mike Harris, whose former staff and MPs feature prominently in this government, shouldered part of the blame for the E. coli contaminated drinking water tragedy
The Liberals are expected to spotlight Mr. Harper's cool relations with premiers by recruiting Newfoundland's Danny Williams to rant against "Steve" with Mr. Dion by his side.
They see a juicy target in the government's recent arts funding cuts, so there are tentative plans to stage an artist-filled event in culture-sensitive Quebec.
The government's income trust flip-flop will be the reason for the Liberal leader's one-time-only touchdown in the party's electoral dead zone of Calgary.
And where better to highlight the government's old-school drug treatment views than to have Mr. Dion pose for the cameras inside the Vancouver safe injection site that Health Minister Tony Clement wants to mothball?
Add it up and there are plenty of smear possibilities with decent photo-ops to launch the campaign. But to make it work, Mr. Dion needs a strong MP team united behind his weak leadership.
That's a problem because some of his best attack dogs are plotting to become post-Dion leadership contenders who have a vested interest in seeing him fail.
Some senior MPs complain the antagonism runs both ways, noting they have been excluded from campaign planning and socially ostracized, having never dined or even sipped a casual cocktail with their leader.
Against that soundtrack of private grumbling and nervous pessimism, Mr. Dion takes to the stage here today at a pivotal moment that must fire up leadership confidence in a caucus already contemplating his replacement.
The party knows it will be difficult for them to beat back Stephen Harper with Mr. Dion at the helm.
But if this Liberal leader can't get his own MPs solidly behind him, even if it's only a fake show of loyalty for the next 40 days, it will be a mission impossible.

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