Thoughts at the half-way point: Harper blowing Ontario, Ignatieff has the most growth potential…

The federal campaign is now at its half-way point. Let me share some thoughts.

The Daily Nanos rolling overnight polls show little change in the last two days and everyone is saying public opinion isn’t budging. Remember the good old days when polls came out once a week and therefore did pick up on changes more clearly? Today, if a party goes up 0.4% in the overnight tracking, the pundits say they’ve got momentum.

The 62 per cent of Canadians not impressed by Stephen Harper before this election remain unimpressed. Once again, Harper’s many negatives are turning people away and his support can’t seem to rise above the 38% he had last time. The weight of Tory scandals and missteps in government seem to be overpowering whatever strengths Harper is showing on the campaign trail. Harper’s improvements are proving to be too subtle or unconvincing to overpower what is already too firmly established a brand. Recent reminders of G8 overspending and the mistreatment of Helena Guergis merely reinforce our collective hesitation to give this guy the ultimate power he so clearly craves.

Harper is tanking a bit in Ontario. Throwing out a student from a rally in London because of her Facebook page probably played worse in that region than anywhere else because it was in their own backyard. The same goes in Guelph where the Tories tried and failed to disallow hundreds of student votes. The recent G8 spending spree scandal has also reminded voters in Ontario and particularly the Greater Toronto Region of Conservative missteps and incompetence. Now the Helena Guergis affair in Simcoe-Grey, right in the heart of Tory country, reminds voters of Stephen Harper’s less-than-stellar judgment. It also turns off many women who mostly see a new mother badly beaten up by her former boss.

None of these things help create momentum for the Tories. Quite the contrary, they create an environment in which Tories in close ridings lose seats, particularly around the GTA.

This creates a huge opportunity for the Ignatieff Grits to make gains in Ontario.

At the same time, while Michael Ignatieff has impressed many in the Liberal base during this election, he has yet to seal the deal with many outside the big red tent. Although I do believe he has begun that process having put in a strong effort thus far. The Liberal platform is solid and speaks to the voters he hopes to win over. Liberal attacks on Tory incompetence and arrogance are resonating, particularly in places the Grits know they can win back seats. Ignatieff is a leader on the rise in this campaign. It’s just a question of how many voters he can win over in the next two weeks. Many progressive Canadians currently in the NDP camp are very tempted to vote Liberal on May 2nd.

The slight uptick in support for the NDP after the debates shows there’s a healthy dose of progressiveness in the Canadian electorate. But I think those progressive votes are still in flux. They could go either Liberal or NDP in this race. The question for Michael Ignatieff: how best to win them over into his camp by voting day?

Nanos and other polls also show a drop in B.C. for the Tories of about 5 to 10 points from 2008. The main beneficiary in B.C. is the Liberal Party, who are up eight to 10 points, while the NDP is largely stagnant. That would translate into Tory losses, both to the Liberals and the NDP, not gains. If Ujjal Dosanjh can win Vancouver South for the Liberals in 2008 when his party only got 19% of the vote, how well will he do with the Grits at 27 per cent? Probably much better. No, in fact, based on what we’re seeing today in B.C. polls, ridings like West Vancouver, Surrey North and probably even Saanich-Gulf-Islands are in trouble for the Tories.

The NDP growth in polls this week in Quebec will likely not last until election day for two major reasons: the NDP doesn’t have the organization on the ground to identify that vote, nurture it and get it to the polls on election day, and two, many voters realize that voting NDP will likely produce little except a smaller margin of victory for one of the other three major parties in their riding. Peaking two weeks before voting day is something the NDP does best. I’m sure the NDP will increase their vote in Quebec on May 2nd from 2008, but it won’t be anywhere near as high as they are polling now.

Ignatieff appears to have won the campaign in the first two weeks, only to come up a bit short in the leaders’ debates in which Layton, Duceppe and Harper stole some of his thunder, although I still contend Ignatieff did an excellent job in both debates.

But the debates won’t decide the outcome of this race. Two weeks is an eternity in politics. We can now expect Ignatieff to up his campaign performance. If he continues to perform as well as he did at this Sudbury rally, we should expect the Liberal vote to rise back up into the 30s and momentum to shift back to him as the best option for Canadians looking to cast a ballot against the Harper Conservatives.

My advice to Ignatieff: let his negative ads continue to bash Harper on his record of incompetence and dishonesty, particularly on health care. But on the campaign trail, Ignatieff should focus squarely on emphasizing that he and the Liberals have the best plan and vision for taking the country forward. To the average progressive Canadian, it’s already extremely clear that the Liberals are the best positioned to beat the Tories. We don’t need to hear the old maxim that ‘Voting NDP is like voting for the Tories’ again. That argument grates on ears and actually turns away more voters than it attracts. No one wants to hear they don’t have a choice in this election except to vote Liberal. It sounds desperate.

Instead, Ignatieff should focus on his positive vision and his plan for the country, how an Ignatieff government would be better for Canada than another Harper government. Ignatieff has carefully laid the groundwork for this argument with his platform and message. Now it’s time to hammer that message home. I think he’s more than up to it.

Yes, Ignatieff should go positive on his vision for the country in the next two weeks. If he does that, the big red tent will get bigger and bigger…