John Ivison: Stephen Harper may need a chance to sit, think and plan if he wants to win

There will be no deviation by on the Syrian refugees issue.

In his mind, he took action, back when the media was obsessed with the Mike Duffy trial. He has routinely said a re-elected Conservative government would bring in more refugees and expedite the process, while ensuring adequate screening measures remained in place to make sure Canadians are protected from potential terrorists. That’s it, there will be no more.

Harper has been more restrained than his supporters, who again heckled reporters for asking questions they don’t find helpful to the Conservative Party’s re-election prospects.

But his frustration is evident. He feels he has been working on this file for a long time — he is alone among the leaders in having visited refugee camps in Jordan and Iraq — and now that it is in the spotlight, believes he’s getting no respect.

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At a rally Wednesday, he offered a riposte to the accusation from Justin Trudeau that he has been using security as an excuse not to act.

“On the contrary, this government is committed to bringing in more people and expediting the process … But we are also talking about a terrorist war zone, so we will be protecting Canadians from security risks. There is no contradiction — we will be doing both these things.”

That may be so. But Harper’s been in this game long enough to know that politicians who act like a martyr in the face of public anger end up getting martyred.

Prime Ministers David Cameron in the U.K. and Tony Abbott in Australia have both bowed to public calls to take in more Syrian migrants.

For now, Harper is determined to plough on, falling back on the argument that is the largest re-settler of refugees and due security processes must be followed.

Unfortunately for the Conservatives, voters don’t want to hear about process when their gander is up.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian WyldTHE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The cumulative effect of the Duffy trial, bad economic news and the migrant crisis has sent the Tories tumbling into third place in the polls.

Conservative sources say there is no panic — we are, by some calculations, only two days into the real campaign.

But there are concerns about the way the phoney war of August and early September has unfolded.

There is disquiet in some quarters about the preparation for the campaign — particularly the vetting of candidates, training (or lack of) for candidates and campaign managers and the targeting of vulnerable opposition seats.

“This time we had more time, more money and more stability than ever, but organizationally, we’re a mess,” said one Conservative veteran.

It is not Harper’s way to publicly fire any senior member of his team unless he has no choice. In 2011, Nigel Wright, who had been travelling with the leader, was quietly parachuted into the war-room in mid-campaign.

A similar scenario is likely to unfold this time, with an experienced figure assuming control and Jenni Byrne, the current campaign manager, being gently sidelined. (The Canadian Press on Wednesday reported that Ray Novak, the PM’s chief of staff, has abandoned the campaign plane in favour of working the war room.)

This may arrest the Tories’ decline in fortunes. But I doubt it.

The Conservatives have never recovered from Wright’s departure and there is no one else, with the exception of his wife Laureen, to whom Harper listens.

The only cure for what ails the Conservative campaign is to give the leader a couple of days off — to sit and think, and to learn lessons from the mistakes made in the first 40 days. Veteran staffers say Harper’s biggest complaint is that he never has time to think. He’s now five weeks into an electoral marathon and thinking time, away from the hurly burly of the campaign, is presumably at a premium.

Old campaigners say it has worked before — sit Harper in a quiet room with his yellow legal pad and let him plot a way out of the soft sand before he sinks still further. It worked in 2008, when he realized he had to change tack and embrace stimulus spending, they say. It might work again — perhaps he will conclude he has to make additional commitments on Syrian refugees; or take part in more debates; or plan a fresh line of attack on the NDP’s Tom Mulcair….

The Conservatives cannot be written out of this race yet. They are only five points back, they have the Duffy trial behind them; they have plenty of money and a leader who has experience winning elections.

But they are running a campaign that has been beset by gloom and apathy.

After his free trade flip-flop, Brian Mulroney said only donkeys don’t change their minds. If Harper is to avoid being the old grey donkey of this election –

“It’s snowing and freezing, however, we haven’t had an earthquake lately,” said Eeyore – something better change, and quick.

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