Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Rallying to the leader

Babble on.

By all accounts, the Conservative rally with Stephen Harper in Markham yesterday afternoon was a great success. Since I happened to be in attendance, I'll give you my impressions of the event.

Before I get to that, though, I should provide a bit of context for my remarks. I find these sort of rah-rah events more than a little awkward. To me, the staging seems transparent and phony, the placards and signs are an irritating distraction, and the waiting around in a crush of people for the inevitable late start is invariably a grind. Oh, I know rallies are necessary, if only to prove to the gaggle of reporters that support exists for the party, but I don't have to like them.

Having said all that, Harper's visit was everything you could ask for in a campaign pit stop. When I showed up about a minute prior to the announced start time of 3:30, the Veterans' hall was packed. The route from the door of the room to the podium was lined with folks - many of them quite young - in blue Conservative t-shirts, each holding a campaign placard. Running that gauntlet of faces obviously disappointed you're not the guest of honour made for an uncomfortable start to the event for me.

After asking one of the organizers what I could do to help, I was tasked with handing out signs to the empty-handed in the crowd. I cling stubbornly to the delusion I'm still at least passably nimble, but the truth is that navigating my 220 lbs around a packed room holding a double handful of CPC picket signs proved a real challenge.

One surprise was bumping into an old classmate from my high-school days who is now running one of the campaign offices for my riding of Oak Ridges - Markham. Jeff Laceby was a year ahead of me at St. Andrew's, and like most people who haven't seen me in a decade, he didn't know me from Adam until I introduced myself. With the exception of a slightly elevated hairline, Jeff doesn't look much different from the last time I saw him in 1988. I guess endless youth is a side benefit to operating a real estate brokerage and consigning your immortal soul in a long-term lease to SATAN!!!. But *facial tick* it was good to see Jeff again *tick*. No, really.

(Update: it's come to my attention that some folks might misconstrue my envy of Jeff's youthful appearance with an actual deal with Lucifer, or be offended that I even joke about it. To those most unfortunate, humourless souls, I give this advice: give your head a shake. Learn to laugh or stop reading my blog. Legal disclaimer: this blog is in no way endorsed by Bob Callow, the Oak Ridges-Markham Conservative riding association, or anybody else. Unless they want to start paying me vast sums of money, opinions expressed here are my own. Now, I'll humbly accept their endorsement in exchange for cold, hard cash. Lots of it. In untraceable bearer-bonds. Forwarded to my numbered account in Bora Bora. Of course, if I really expected that sort of special treatment, I'd be a Liberal...but I digress...)

After catching up with my fellow alumnus and subsequently standing around with a sign dangling from my hand for a good twenty minutes, the local candidates mounted the podium. Notable for me were the enthusiastic cheers for both the host of the event, my own riding's Bob Callow, and for Lois Brown, the lady running in what a gentleman beside me referred to smilingly as "Belinda Stronach's soon-to-be-ex-riding."

To the best of my knowledge, this is Bob Callow's third run at a seat in the House of Commons: once as an Alliance candidate, and twice now as a Conservative. He's a good friend and former business partner of Frank Klees, who holds a provincial seat for the Ontario PC party within the federal riding. He is also a successful businessman, an experienced public servant (with an unprecedented nine years on the York Region Police Services Board), and from several candid conversations I've had with him over the past year and a half, a genuinely decent man.

Bob stands over six feet tall, with a deep voice, and perfectly silvering hair. Although everyone I've spoken with in the riding association - including Bob - agrees it should be inconsequential, everyone I've spoken with also acknowledges that we'd be foolish not to play to the strength of his image, because he sure looks the part. Hence his smiling mug on all the campaign signs and literature.

Of course, that's a double-edged blade, as his campaign staff knows. Coming across as too perfect can make him appear intimidating and unrelatable, not qualities a candidate for public office strives to portray. At a meeting just before the writ was dropped, I remarked to a couple of organizers that a campaign blog might serve to ground Bob's image. Candid, everyday thoughts on campaigning and the issues could make him more real to the voter. Of course, I didn't get much of a response on that front. Blogging is still a side venture, I suppose, especially for the experienced campaign team he's put together.

And that's unarguably Bob Callow's greatest strength, politically speaking: he's experienced and he knows everyone. He's been involved in politics locally for decades now, and he can call on a lot of personal support for his election bid. In fact, he was unopposed for the Conservative nomination earlier this year in the riding despite being beaten by over 11,000 votes last time around. Because of his personal political network, I doubt anyone will even try for the nomination until he decides not to seek it again. Hopefully the third time will be a charm and he'll be elected so we won't have to worry about nominations for a while.

Wow, that's a pretty lengthy digression from the original intent of this post. Back to the rally.

Once the television cameras were set up at the back of the room and the microphones were tested, Bob and Lois introduced Stephen Harper, who strode through the doorway in an open-necked dress shirt and blue blazer to take the stage. I saw Harper speak live once during the last campaign, and was surprised at how much better he came across in person than on TV. This experience was no different - if anything, he's gotten even better live. Although I knew to expect it this time around, I suspect those seeing a full Harper speech in person for the first time were surprised at how funny he is. It's a dry wit he has, and the slight smile that accompanies his best lines plays better in context than it does in a short TV clip.

I'm not sure how the CPC image people can even work on that. When you watch a twenty-minute speech, Harper's grins, sprinkled appropriately throughout his message, seem natural. On television, they seem forced. It's a problem, but one I have no real idea how to fix.

Most of the speech was what we've heard before, sliced and diced a little differently for a different audience. Childcare and gun violence received special attention, as I would have expected in this extended suburb of Toronto. I noticed his speech notes were on laminated paper in a three-ring binder. I wonder if his speeches are modular: pull four pages on tax cuts and replace them with one when you leave Alberta, then plug in four pages on gun violence for the crowd in T.O. That's pure speculation on my part - it could just be that he's worried about spilling water at every precarious podium he speaks from across the country.

Harper ad-libbed at least one good shot that didn't make the evening news. I don't remember it verbatim, but referring to Bob Callow, he said something to the effect that we need more MP's like Bob who not only run businesses, but fly the Canadian flag over them. Ouch.

I don't know whether anyone else picks up on this sort of thing, but I do, so you'll just have to grin and skim if you don't. I saw three obvious RCMP security personnel in civvie suits, one of whom looked liked he could probably crush a beer can with one hand - a full one that is. They were very intent upon the crowd, and Harper left from a different door than he entered. I scanned the room, but couldn't spot the less obvious security mingling with the crowd, although I'd be surprised if it wasn't there. I'm sure Harper gets wacko threats - in fact, I'm sure all the leaders and some of the more prominent candidates do. I wonder what resources are devoted by the RCMP and local forces to running those threats down? After the break-in at 24 Sussex and Chretien's infamous Shawinigan handshake, I'd be curious to find out if the RCMP has gotten a better grip on VIP security in recent years. The guys I eyeballed looked like pretty serious fellows, but only an insider would know for sure.

Once Harper was out the door, the room emptied fairly quickly. Apart from the death-and-taxes late start, I was pleasantly surprised at how well organized and glitch-free the proceedings were. Polish was not a hallmark of the previous campaign, and I'm glad the Conservatives have figured it out for this one.

My own discomfort with such events aside, this rally was well-run. I'd say it's representative of the entire campaign to date. Hopefully the trend will continue, and we'll have a much-needed change of government come January 23rd.

Babble off.

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