The Conservatives' new ad. No, not Rae, the other one.

Everyone’s going to be talking about the giggling Bob Rae ad the Conservatives finally get to unleash, five years after they prepared similar ads on the assumption Rae would win the 2006 Liberal leadership.

On that ad, I’ll say only this: The Conservatives still can’t believe the Liberals didn’t launch a strong ad campaign to counter their blitz against Stéphane Dion in 2007. They still pinch themselves when they recall that the Liberals let their opponent define their leader without response. That the Liberals let it happen a second time, to even more devastating effect, with Michael Ignatieff is even harder for Conservatives to fathom.

If the Liberals don’t respond to this ad campaign immediately and with some ambition and creativity — not to hit Harper, but to define Rae — they might as well fold up the party and go home.

But I find myself more intrigued by the other ad, which seems like an afterthought:

Stephen Harper, strong leadership, blah blah blah. One thing to watch will be how frequently this ad plays in the rotation. I’ve got a hunch it’ll be quite prominent, because I think the prime minister has a problem and its name isn’t Bob Rae.

Three different pollsters report a recent increase in the number of Canadians who think the country’s on the wrong track. Perhaps the most striking is Abacus Data, whose young founder David Coletto is often on SunTV and who is sometimes thought to poll in ways that please the Harper Conservatives. And yet.

Abacus, like other pollsters, shows the main parties’ topline voter support holding pretty steady, with the Conservatives roughly on track to repeat their majority victory. But the underlying numbers suck. “Generally speaking, would you say things in this country are headed in the right direction?” Respondents who say the country’s on the wrong track are up 15 points since last August. Those who say Canada’s on the right track are down 11 points over the same period. The streams have crossed, which as we learned in Ghostbusters is bad news: wrong-track respondents now outnumber right-track. When the question is about the government’s handling of the economy, instead of the country in general, disapproval is up 15 points since January. The prime minister’s personal unfavorable rating is up seven points.

Same with Ekos, whose CEO Frank Graves is generally thought to be less of a fan of the Harper Conservatives. “Looking at how Canadians feel about the direction in which the country is heading, we come across a rather shocking finding,” Graves wrote in his March 16 poll findings. “For the first time since we began measuring national direction in the late 90s, those who feel the country is going in the wrong direction now outnumber those who believe it is going in the right direction (albeit insignificantly).”

And finally there’s Forum Research, which had not asked the question before January but which found wrong-track numbers significantly outstripping right-track numbers when it did ask.

It’s worth repeating that the Conservatives’ top-line voter-preference numbers haven’t budged. But I wrote a whole book in 2006 about how when your underlying numbers start to decay, your voter-preference numbers won’t stay airborne for long, and the people who told me about that happening to Paul Martin are now running the country. Harper literally travels with a lectern with the word CANADA on the front of it; if Canada’s in trouble, so is he.

Why would the Conservatives’ wrong-track numbers be spiking? Well, for one thing, because the country’s not on a great track. We’re starting to see headlines like Jobless picture in Canada grim, as the U.S. recovery finally picks up steam and the Canadian recovery starts to stall. And regardless of the objective picture, I know from conversations with people in social settings that a lot of people are tired of being worried about money. We tap into that anxiety with considerable success when we put housing-bubble stories on the cover of the magazine. That story did really well for us.

Meanwhile it’s less clear than it usually is what Harper’s plan might be. As I gather nuts and berries for my next book, I pick up interesting details. Here’s one: after the May 2011 majority election victory, Harper let everybody take a long vacation for the first time in half a decade. He used to hate vacations, and not just his own. He’d schedule a cabinet meeting between Christmas and New Year just to keep a dozen ministers and 80 of their staff and 6,000 civil servants on their toes. But in May he finally dropped his guard, and people went to Brazil and Umbria, and by the time school came back two cabinet ministers were engaged and… for the first time since anybody could remember, there was no ready-made 80-page brain-in-a-jar Strategic Master Plan with parts for everybody to play.

As we’ll discuss in the next issue of the magazine, a plan came along soon enough — within days after Barack Obama postponed the Keystone XL decision in November — but it’s taking time to implement that plan, and in the meantime the Commons is in chaos and messaging is slack and, well, the government isn’t acting very Harperesque. There’s a lot riding on budget day and the selection, five days earlier, of a new Opposition Leader. The next few weeks should clarify things. For the government’s sake, the next few weeks had better start clarifying things.

So there is unaccustomed dissatisfaction in the land, and the government is shaky at precisely the moment it had thought it was finally solid. These new “positive” ads seem designed to adjust ominous perceptions. Expect to see a lot of them.


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