Note: this item has also been posted to the Western Standard's Shotgun Blog.
As the campaign proceeds to its denouement two weeks hence, the similarities to the 2003 Ontario campaign waged between PC Premier Ernie Eves and Liberal leader Dalton McGuinty mount.
Both campaigns began with a respected former finance minister leading a government with a good economic and fiscal record, though somewhat tarnished on other files. (Addendum: both Martin and Eves also grew up in Windsor.) The incumbent regime was acknowledged as having a seasoned team of adept spinners and communicators. Though winning another mandate would not be easy, on paper the team looked formidable, especially against an unknown and, to some, unlikeable challenger.
The first weeks of the campaigns saw the challengers succeed in highlighting their party’s policies, many of which were appealing to middle-class families. In McGuinty’s case, these included a signed pledge to freeze taxes, and smaller class sizes in the early grades.
In 2003, there was a war room gaffe not dissimilar to the Scott Reid “beer-and-popcorn” brain cramp: an Eves campaign staffer circulated a joke e-mail describing McGuinty as an “evil reptilian kitten eater from another planet.” The e-mail got into the media’s hands, onto the front page of the Toronto Sun, and played out in media coverage for several days.
The incumbent, facing the same opposition leader they had beaten the last time, ran attack ads similar to those they had run the previous election: the Eves PCs ran an ad calling McGuinty “not up to the job” as they had in 1999. This time, the Liberals again have an attack ad suggesting Harper would have “sent Canadians to fight in Iraq.”
As an aside, the 2003 campaign also featured CAW head Basil “Buzz” Hargrove telling union members to vote Liberal if necessary, in order to defeat the conservatives. Why do the media keep treating this like big news? The NDP should have a nice bag of quotes next time to inoculate themselves against yet another Liberal endorsement from Buzz.
Which brings us to last night’s debate, the most recent parallel. In 2003, the trailing Eves needed an exceptional debate performance (or a McGuinty flame-out) to catch the rising challenger. But while Eves put in a solid and arguably superior performance, it wasn’t enough, and McGuinty did not falter. The post-debate analysis last night suggests that Martin’s performance, while respectable, will not bring him even with Harper, who did not falter.
The Ontario Tories, having beaten McGuinty once, made the mistake of underestimating him and recycling their last playbook, thinking it would suffice. Martin’s people seem to have fallen into the same trap. But as the Tories found, McGuinty 2003 was not the same opponent as McGuinty 1999. And as we are seeing, Harper 2006 is not Harper 2004. Will the Martin Liberals suffer the same fate as the Eves PCs? As Kent Brockman says, only TIME will tell.