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Liberals concerned Dion surrounded by 2006 election-loss deniers

[PoliticsWatch updated 6:00 p.m., March 9, 2007]

Liberal Leader Stephane Dion and former prime minister Paul Martin share the stage at last year's Liberal Leadership convention in Montreal . 

OTTAWA — Already dropping in the polls and facing negative reviews from the media, Liberal Leader Stephane Dion is now facing potential  infighting within the party.  

You can just walk by Liberal party headquarters in Ottawa to hear Liberals on their smoke break complaining about their fellow party members. 

Behind the scenes some Liberals are becoming increasingly concerned with having a number of supporters of former prime minister Paul Martin in key party positions for the upcoming federal election and the perceived lack of outreach to supporters of other leadership camps. 

One Liberal insider told PoliticsWatch he was concerned that Martin's supporters still hold the belief that external forces were the main reasons the Liberals lost the last election. 

"Dion calls (Prime Minister Stephen) Harper a climate-change denier, but he's surrounded with the same people who are Paul Martin lost the campaign deniers," the insider said.  "They just don't think the campaign that they ran was in any way a contribution to the campaign loss."

Since last year's election loss, a number of Liberals on and around Parliament Hill have complained privately to reporters, or anyone who would listen to them for that matter, that the RCMP announcing a criminal investigation of an the alleged income trust leak and an overload of negative media coverage, primarily from CTV News, were the key factors in the party's campaign loss. 

To drive the point home even further, last month when the RCMP announced that only one civil servant, but no politicians, would be charged in the income trust investigation, CBC Newsworld Politics host Don Newman read on air an e-mail he had received from Martin's campaign co-chair David Herle, which simply noted where the Liberals were in the polls in Ontario before the RCMP announcement and where they were after the announcement. 

However, many Liberals also cite what they call a poorly managed campaign which saw Martin essentially coast for the first few weeks of the campaign while Harper defined himself with voters with daily policy announcements. 

Tim Murphy, Martin's chief of staff who is now a Dion supporter, defended that strategy in an interview with CTV News' Question Period after the election last year, saying it saved the party from a 1993 decimation that befell the Tories.  

"You were either going to focus your energy and spend your advertising money in the first part or the second part," Murphy said.

"And if we'd spent it all on the first part, we would have had nothing to recover with in the second part. As it turns out, the difference between the potential freefall down to a Kim Campbell result, and the fact that we have 103 members, was the fact that we retained our resources after Christmas and managed to scramble back from very difficult strains."

But obviously those results were not good enough for Martin who quickly announced he was stepping down on election night. 

Other Liberals are already seeing a similar pattern emerging from Dion's own leadership. 

The Liberals have yet to respond in any way to Conservative attacks that have aired across Canada for the past six weeks. 

When the Tories introduced French-language attack ads last month, PoliticsWatch asked Dion at a press conference if he had any plans to hit back. 

Dion said there were no such plans. 

"I'm very confident with the intelligence of the Canadian people in both official languages," said Dion, adding that it has worked well for him in his 11 years in politics. 

But just a few weeks later and the Globe and Mail published a story surrounding an internal Liberal debate on whether to introduce a new series of ads to improve Dion's image. 

The leak of the strategy information prompted Maclean's columnist Paul Wells to suggest there was a "crack-smoking moron" working for Dion. 

To add to the confusion when Dion is asked again about hitting back with his own ads later in the  week, he said he won't stoop to that level and will take the high road. Reporters quickly realized that Dion's comment will come back to haunt him when the election campaign is on when the Liberals will inevitably have to run attack ads like virtually all contending parties in Western democracies have to do. 

Dion's office has "no seasoned operatives" lamented one Liberal insider. 

"The mood on Parliament Hill is the worst it's been since 1993 for Liberal staffers," the insider said. "It's very difficult to find a Liberal staffer who is not resigned that they will lose the next election and lose seats."

"It's very glum."

Recent polls show the Conservatives opening up a lead on the Liberals, who are polling lower than they were on election day. 

Not only is Dion being clobbered in the media he is being hit by friendly fire as well. 

The Tories don't need attack ads when they have off-message Liberals. 

This week, two former Liberal environment ministers felt compelled to tell two separate national newspapers that Dion was no champion of Kyoto when he was the intergovernmental affairs minister in the Chretien cabinet, further eroding his Green image. 

A stinging criticism of the federal Liberal party's crime policy, describing it as stuck in the Summer of Love, written by the Liberal attorney general of Ontario is leaked to the Globe and Mail, giving further credence to the PM's allegations that Dion is "soft on crime."

It seems more Liberals are taking shots at their leader than standing up and defending him and people are quickly jumping off ship. This week, four Liberal MPs announced they were not running in the next election, three of them were former cabinet ministers. 

The Liberals and Dion have to turn things around and do it quickly. 

The Tories appear to be in election mode and waiting to pounce on the unprepared Dion. If Dion does not win this election then that's it. Dion had just 17 per cent of delegates going into the leadership convention and the support of 10 MPs. The unspoken consensus of MPs and insiders is that this is his only shot and if he blows it he is gone. 

However, Dion remains confident. 

In a Liberal campaign fundraising letter recently sent to donors, Dion confidently predicts, "We will win a Liberal majority because our program is sound."

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