Where the elite meet to greet

UPDATE: Commenter Austin So found video of the shout chorus at the end of Dion’s speech.

Stéphane Dion spoke at the Economic Empire Gridiron Niblick Participle Club today, or whatever it’s called, at the Royal York. The crowd, assorted Toronto swells with a substantial concentration of card-carrying Liberals (Ottawa being inhospitable, many have fetched up on Bay Street) was about one-third the size of the crowd for Stephen Harper yesterday. I know this because I received three emails while Dion was talking, all from the Conservative war room, all on the theme that the crowd was about one-third the size of the crowd for Harper.

Those three were only a small fraction of the total number of emails I received from the Conservative war room while I was trying to listen to Dion’s speech. You know how sometimes you go three minutes without getting an email? The Conservatives are working hard to make sure we don’t feel that horrible lonely feeling.

But I digress. Dion’s speech comes at an odd moment, a day after Harper spoke to an audience approximately three times as big as this one — three times! — to release the Conservative platform and to tell an audience approximately three times as big as Dion’s audience that Noah was an excellent financial planner. Now Dion had to persuade an audience merely one-third the size of Harper’s that he, Dion, can manage an economy, or talk about managing one. Basically Dion had to look prime ministerial.

I won’t go into great detail, but I should note that the tiny, plucky crowd seemed quite taken with Dion’s speech. That the crowd rose twice to give enthusiastic standing ovations, one of them in response to the line: “I may not speak English as well as Stephen Harper, but I speak the language of truth better than him, in English or in French.”

There was a long off-script I-Love-Canada bit at the end that was quite simple and powerful, and just about everybody leaving the room was talking about that part of the speech. But what struck me even more was the populist and province-friendly notes Dion struck. We are through the looking glass when the Liberal leader is able to elbow Harper aside on “cares about people like you” and “can work with the provinces.” And yet here he was at least attempting to do just that.

Harper is “completely out of touch” with the impact of the recent unpleasantness “on the lives of everyday Canadians,” Dion said. “There is no time to waste, we need shovels in the ground.” Shovels in the ground? Shades of Chrétien ’93. The crowd, which I feel compelled to tell you was only about one-third the size of the crowd for Harper, ate it up.

Then there was this: “We Liberals understand that we need to work with the Premiers, not against them. Unlike Stephen Harper I will meet with first ministers… He has chosen not to hold a formal First Ministers meeting. Jim Flaherty, his Finance Minister, attacked this province…”

The emerging and interesting theme of this campaign is that Stephen Harper, who some bloggers were calling Everyman as recently as Saturday, and who had all the gleaming apparatus of modern electioneering — legions of brain-in-a-jar strategic geniuses, a fundraising armada, gleaming suburban election suites, purpose-built teevee studios, the Legendary Guy Giorno Himself! as chief of staff (fun question: could anyone find Guy Giorno with teams of bloodhounds this week?) — and who had no stronger claim to legitimacy than his preoccupation for the concerns of ordinary folks and his willingness to play nice with the provinces — has managed to let himself get pushed off those dimes by Snooty French-Educated Clarity-Bill Guy. Peter Van Loan was standing at the back of the room, looking a mite less cocky than when he was lecturing me on The Real Concerns of Ordinary Folk in Quebec City in August. Now I know I’m a Perrier-sipping rich-gala-attending MSM leftard, but here’s the thing, Peter: I grew up in Sarnia and I went to public school with all my neighbours, and the ordinary folk I grew up with don’t like jerks.

The Liberals I spoke to are keenly aware that this week’s change in mood is coming perilously late for them. They know the Conservatives have stronger organization in many parts of the country. They’re not entirely sure how Canadians will react when they realize Harper could actually lose. My own feeling is that a Conservative government after Oct. 14 is still likelier than a Liberal government.

But let it be noted that as this campaign entered its home stretch, the accidental leader peddling a tax increase is getting crowds to their feet in North Bay and Bay Street, while the crack team assembled by the guy who’s spent the last three years playing three-dimensional Vulcan chess was reduced to crowd counts.

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