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Clocking ticking for the Liberals

[PoliticsWatch Updated 6:10 p.m. January 11, 2006]

OTTAWA  — With 12 days left in the campaign, the Liberal party appears to be running out of time to regain much needed momentum in their campaign. 

The latest SES Research daily tracking poll put the Conservatives at 39 per cent support compared to 30 per cent support for the Liberals - the largest gap in that firm's polling so far in the election. 

The poll released Wednesday afternoon now means all the main polling firms are showing the Conservatives pulling ahead of the Liberals with leads that are outside the margin of error. 

Despite this, the Liberal party is putting up a confident front and reminding reporters that they faced a similar situation in the 2004 campaign, when Conservative Leader Stephen Harper's campaign had a meltdown in the final weeks. 

"I've been here before," Prime Minister Paul Martin told a reporter on Wednesday after that reporter suggested his campaign was in disarray.

"We've been here before. We saw what happened a year and a half ago. I feel very good about our campaign and I feel very good about our campaign for the reason I have just set out."

That reason is Martin and his team are planning on turning the national campaign onto a question of values and will use the Trojan horse of the notwithstanding clause to raise divisive social issues to drive soft small-liberal supporters to the Liberals and away from the NDP. 

While Martin says he has been here before, a look at the polling from the 2004 campaign shows this campaign is a little different. 

Like the last election, the debates took place on June 14 with exactly two weeks left in the campaign. 

However, at that time the SES poll taken two weeks before the election showed the Tories and the Liberals in a very close race with the Tories up by just two points.

Yes, Harper had fashioned a lead in the 2004 campaign, but that lead began evaporating the week before the debates and three weeks before the election. 

The Tories peaked on June 9, 2004, with 19 days left in the campaign, when SES had them five points ahead of the Liberals, their largest lead of the campaign in any of the polls of the four firms that are also in the field in this election. 

While it has become popular wisdom that Martin's debate performance helped turn the tide and revitalize the campaign, the Tories started leaking support before that. 

After the debate the Tories only led in three of the 15 polls until election day. And their largest lead during that period was just three points in a June 19, Ipsos poll.

This time around the latest polls show the Tories with much larger leads.

Ekos has the Tories ahead by 13 points. The Strategic Counsel shows the party up 10 points and Decima shows an 11-point lead. 

And not only are these leads for Harper bigger than the last time around, they are coming a week later than they did in the last campaign. 

It is too soon to tell if Martin's performance in the debates has shifted the momentum, but the early pundit reviews are not as good as they were in 2004.

In fact, if Martin does go on to salvage a minority victory in the election again, the past 24 hours will be looked upon as the lowest point for the Grits in this campaign. It has to be because they cannot have more days like this if they plan to make a comeback.

The Liberals were hoping that the launch of their air war in the form of a large number of attack ads on Tuesday was the boost their campaign needed. 

But the ad campaign quickly became tainted after the party pulled one of the ads that suggested there was something sinister and untoward about Harper's plan to have troops in large population centers at the ready in case of natural disasters.

"To try to separate (troops) as some kind of scary gang that's going to overtake our liberties, just shows that the Liberals, at their basic values, don't respect the military," said Conservative MP Gord O'Connor at a press conference Wednesday. 

Even though the rest of the batch of ads are similar in appearance and format, the Liberals have kept them on the air, crossing their fingers and hoping the one bad ad doesn't ruin it for the whole bunch. 

But the ad apparently backfiring on the Liberals are now causing the party's spin doctors to loose their cool on the TV panel shows they appear on. 

Liberal strategist John Duffy was accused on the air by CTV News journalist Mike Duffy of trying to intimidate him. In a rare Canadian television confrontation, Duffy said the Liberal Duffy approached him during a commercial break and in an effort to stop raising the issue about the embarrassing military ad (which John Duffy denied was an ad because it had not aired on television yet).

And Liberal strategist Susan Murray let loose with an expletive towards NDP strategist Brad Lavigne on the set of CBC Newsworld's august Politics show Wednesday morning. Previously the strongest language ever used on that program was "Holy moly."

With their platform being leaked to the blog of the most conservative of Canadian of publications by a rumoured war room mole, things don't look good for the Liberals in the post debate portion of the campaign.

But while 12 days is not as much time as they had to play with when they pulled their goalie in the last campaign, it still can feel like a lifetime in politics.

The plan to again turn the campaign onto the issue of rights appeared to be gaining some traction for the first time on Wednesday afternoon when Martin met reporters. 

While he is facing tough questions about whether it was hypocritical for him to want to kill the notwithstanding clause, -- he had previously said he would use it to protect religious rights -- these questions are allowing him to openly raise questions of his own about social conservatives in the Conservative caucus, providing the type of soundbites he likes. 

And for the first time since the campaign resumed after the holidays, Martin was not asked about the two latest Liberals scandals - income trusts and Option Canada.

If things are starting to turn for Martin and the Liberals, then it is possible for them to rebound and cut the Harper lead. 

That is if there is enough time.

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