Friday, September 11, 2015

"The campaign is a shambles of stupidity, mistakes, gaffes and laughable s... . Most amateur national election performance since Kim Campbell."

Harper turned to friends outside his trusted circle for critical campaign advice

While Harper was insisting publicly he didn't need to shift course on the campaign, sources with knowledge of a private Toronto dinner this week and the discussions that followed, said a shift had already begun.

By Tonda MacCharles/Ottawa Bureau Reporter

Thursday, September 10, 2015
Australian polling consultant Lynton Crosby is joining the Conservative election campaign. Dubbed the Wizard of Oz, the tough-talking hard-nosed strategist has worked on Boris Johnson's London mayoral bid and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron's campaign team. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

TROIS-RIVIÈRES, QUEBEC—A rattled Stephen Harper convened a quiet and private dinner this week at a friend’s home in Toronto in a bid to re-set a troubled Conservative campaign, the Star has learned.
Harper — who is “his own gut-check” as one insider puts it — reached out beyond his own trusted circle “inside the bubble” of the senior campaign ranks to people on the outside, a small knot of individuals who examined where Harper was, and where he was going.
Down fast, according to some polls.
It was a casual, relaxing meal, a key turning point, sources say. A chance for Harper to huddle with some pals and focus on what had to be done.
Headlines this week played up the exit of campaign manager Jenni Byrne, who spent two weeks on the campaign plane during the Duffy trial, and her return to Ottawa party headquarters.
On Thursday, more headlines: a report that Australian polling consultant Lynton Crosby was parachuting in to pull the rip-cords on a campaign in free-fall.
Dubbed the Wizard of Oz, the “arrival” of the brash, tough-talking hard-nosed strategist who has worked on Boris Johnson’s London mayoral bid and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s campaign team, appeared to breathlessly confirm the narrative that Harper’s senior campaign team needed adult supervision or, worse, rescue.
But several senior Conservatives denied, on and off the record, that it was the case.
Campaign spokesman Kory Teneycke downplayed Crosby’s role, saying “he is not here,” that Crosby had a longstanding involvement with the party in past years, and with the 2015 campaign team since last March. In fact, he goes back to the day when Doug Finley was running the Conservatives’ campaigns. Finley died in 2013 — a loss still felt in some Conservative circles.
It appears Crosby has been involved in testing responses to campaign messaging but is not, as was reported, re-framing key messages or designing ads for a sinking ship.
And though it had been a terrible week, sources inside and outside the campaign say, the dissension in the ranks had largely settled, though irritants — like the leak about Crosby’s role — infuriated still. One senior Conservative swore, and said it was “heady ego s---” — somebody in the campaign “is obviously trying to f--- us.”
Nevertheless, by Thursday, Harper, who’d been visibly irritated at questions about his campaign team, put paid to any suggestion they’d lost his confidence.
Asked about the performance of campaign manager Jenni Byrne on Thursday Harper refused to comment, saying he won’t discuss “questions of staffing.”
“Obviously I have a good team,” he said, before shifting his answer back to campaign mode: “For me the big question of this campaign remains the same,” he said in French — the choice before voters about which party has the best economic plan to move the country forward.
That, too, was deliberate, part of one of the takeaways from the kitchen cabinet dinner, that the campaign had to get back to focusing on its core economic message, and pitch the contrast between Harper and his opponents.
Other takeaways: Harper should loosen up. Voila: there soon followed two photo ops of him doffing his suit jacket and playing ball hockey with kids after a disability savings announcement, then later shooting the ball around with his staff on an airport tarmac.
Yet no one downplays that it had been a tough week.
Especially the day that Syria dominated the media’s handful of questions to Harper, supporters heckled journalists, and the foreign minister was shown dodging down a hall after the event as cameras pursued him. It was a “s--- how,” one agreed.
It had gotten off to a worse start.
Sources say Harper was in fact angered Monday by sloppy campaign vetting that led to two GTA candidates being sent packing as he arrived on a major swing through the vote-rich GTA region.
But Harper decided his senior staff were not going to be fired, or replaced.
The same three people running things at the top remain in place: campaign chair Guy Giorno, lawyer and Harper’s former chief of staff; campaign director Byrne, Harper’s deputy chief of staff in the PMO who inspires fear in those who cross her, and Ray Novak, Harper’s longtime trusted aide who is chief of staff. Kory Teneycke, the campaign spokesman, who some muttered had failed to quell questions about Novak during the Duffy trial, remains the public face of the campaign team when Harper isn’t addressing questions.
While officially there are no changes, it didn’t look that way from the outside.
Sources say Byrne and Giorno were at odds.
Byrne, who hadn’t travelled on previous campaign planes but usually worked the “ground game” at headquarters — responsible for candidate vetting, voter identification, target ridings and overseeing “war room” operations — got on board the leader’s plane for two weeks during the Mike Duffy trial.
Novak, who usually does travel with Harper, and is a steady hand, had become a camera magnet for the travelling media.
Identified in testimony by a former PMO staffer as having been in the loop on Nigel Wright’s $90,000 payment to Duffy (contrary to past claims by Harper), Novak could not escape the glare. He returned to party headquarters in Ottawa.
That’s when headwinds buffeting Harper’s carefully scripted 11-week marathon began to produce serious drag for the tour. On top of two weeks of negative Mike Duffy trial coverage and bad headlines about a recession, Harper was now faced with a country reeling at the images from the Syrian refugee crisis and demands he do more.
The polls showed the toll, and insiders say people were spooked, “looking for scapegoats,” as one said.
There was also, suggested another insider, a certain amount of “blowback” for Byrne whose decision to quietly dampen federal party support for Ontario Progressive Conservative Tim Hudak’s electoral campaign last year still stung.
Damaging leaks about the chaos within emerged, and an ordinarily disciplined campaign team suddenly looked complacent, disoriented and in trouble.
And while publicly, Harper was insisting he didn’t need to shift course, sources with knowledge of that Toronto dinner and the discussions that followed, said a shift had already begun. A new suite of broadcast ads, part of a major media buy, was reviewed and will roll out starting this weekend on television, messages that had been in development prior to now, but have been “tweaked.”
A taste of the tweaking this week, an ad rolled out online that ends with an elderly woman saying Harper is “not perfect” but the only leader who can be trusted with the economy.
The polls, Harper told reporters — and his campaign team — on Wednesday in an unusually frank admission should serve to focus the mind.
He warned voters, as well as his own troops, that an NDP or Liberal government are “real possibilities” — another takeaway from this week of intense self-examination at the most senior levels: that the only way to get voters to stop seeing the campaign as a referendum on 10 years of Stephen Harper is to force them to contemplate a government under the other two parties.
There is a split among veteran Conservatives on the outside looking in. One told the Star the campaign is “a shambles of stupidity, mistakes, gaffes and laughable s---. Most amateur national election performance since Kim Campbell.”
Others, including a senior Conservative cabinet minister, downplay the recent troubles as the kind of internal struggle other parties have experienced in campaigns that appear to be tanking.
Jason Lietaer, a Conservative commentator who knows the players well, is one of the few who would comment: “Whenever things get difficult, you pull together and sort of mobilize against an external opponent or you crumble. This team’s got too much experience, too much pride and too much tenacity and they won’t want to lose to two guys who shouldn’t be running the country.”


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