Monday, March 12, 2007

Conservative pre-election Boot Camp, (Colin Mayes goes to camp?)

Tories off to pre-election 'boot camp'
Candidates to be drilled: Possible revival of the Big Blue Machine?

Andrew Mayeda, CanWest News Service March 12, 2007

OTTAWA - Hundreds of federal Conservative candidates and campaign workers will converge on a Toronto convention centre this week for a political "boot camp" designed to prepare them for the next election.

They will get a first-hand look at a party organization that, in just three years, has evolved from a makeshift collection of amateurs into the most well-funded, well-oiled machine in federal politics.

Over three days of activities starting on Friday at the Toronto Congress Centre, candidates will be drilled in everything from the basics of door-to-door canvassing to the art of delivering the pithy sound bite.

Party operatives will get crash courses in get-out-the-vote techniques and the Conservatives' sophisticated database program for pinpointing such voter categories as "soccer moms."

On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is expected to address the troops at a morale-boosting rally.

Billed officially as a "political training conference," the boot camp is the latest sign the Conservatives are gearing up for a spring election.

"The Prime Minister said he doesn't need an election, and he's governing like he doesn't need one, but if the opposition decides to defeat us, we're ready any time," said John Reynolds, who co-chaired the past Conservative campaign and is expected to play the same role this time.

In recent months, the Conservatives have launched preemptive attack ads against Liberal leader Stephane Dion and established a new campaign headquarters in the Ottawa suburbs outfitted with television equipment for media interviews.

Conservative insiders say campaign buses and planes have been booked; candidates have been nominated in close to three-quarters of the 308 federal ridings; and the development of an election platform is well under way.

For years, the Liberal party was known as a formidable machine. But is it time to start talking about the revival of the Big Blue Machine?

The emergence of the Conservative party as a disciplined, professional organization has been "extraordinary," said David Taras, a professor at the University of Calgary.

"This is one of the great stories in Canadian political history. If you look at where Stephen Harper was in 2003, he was the leader of a party going nowhere. He was so far from power that it was almost laughable."

The Conservatives had little time to prepare for the 2004 election, in which former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin lost his majority but clung to power.

Mr. Harper had only recently won the leadership of the party, which formed after the merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives in late 2003.

Advisors from his leadership bid were rushed into prominent campaign roles, and the party famously ran out of scripted announcements before the end of the campaign.

For the 2006 election, the party streamlined its campaign team and rolled out a tightly scripted platform focused on five priorities.

Now, many of the individuals who played key roles in the past election, including national campaign director Doug Finley and the Prime Minister's chief of staff, Ian Brodie, are expected to figure prominently in the next campaign.

"They've been through '04; they've been through '06. Now it's '07 and it's largely the same people," Mr. Taras said.

"Everybody knows their role; everybody knows each other. They've built up trust. And the mastery of technology and campaign techniques is really impressive."

Mr. Reynolds, like other senior Conservatives, hints that leadership will be a prominent theme in the coming campaign. Recent polls put Mr. Harper well ahead of Mr. Dion in terms of leadership, even though the Conservatives' lead in overall support is slim.

"The Liberals have one heck of a brand name. It's like fighting Coca-Cola," Mr. Reynolds said. "So you have to beat them with other things. Of course, we have a Prime Minister who we think is one of those things."