OTTAWA/MONTREAL (Reuters) - Justin Trudeau, the man who was supposed to lead Canada's Liberals out of the political wilderness, has instead sunk to third place just months from an election, with some in his party complaining he is missing in action.
Born to a sitting prime minister and raised at the foot of power, he presents himself as a kinder, more approachable alternative to Prime Minister Stephen Harper after nine years of rule by the right-leaning Conservatives and three straight Liberal defeats.
But more than two years into his leadership of the once-powerful centrist Liberals, the 43-year-old father of three has struggled to define himself and been labeled by opponents as unready for office despite his prized political pedigree.
Some critics complain Trudeau, son of the late Pierre Trudeau, appears unwilling to go on the road and repeat his message enough times for it to sink in before the Oct. 19 vote.
Former Liberal legislator Dennis Mills, who worked for Trudeau's father - prime minister for 15 years ending in 1984 - took aim at Trudeau's team, saying his handlers needed to be more aggressive.
"All these photo ops are nice, but I think we haven't really seen the inner strength and the passion of the man, and that's because he hasn't been in a situation where that's been allowed to come out," Mills said.
Trudeau's inner circle includes strategist Gerald Butts, campaign co-chair Katie Telford, and Liberal House Leader Dominic LeBlanc. All are in their 30s or 40s.
Asked to respond to the criticisms of his handlers, Trudeau's chief spokeswoman said he and his team "have a clear vision and plan for a better government, not just a different government, and on how we get there."
Trudeau's handlers have previously denied he is keeping a low-profile, noting a series of appearances across Canada.
But opinion polls consistently put the Liberals in third place behind the left-leaning New Democratic Party and Harper's Conservatives, making Trudeau a potential kingmaker if a split vote results in a minority government.
Trudeau, a former teacher and one-time snowboard instructor, burst on the public scene with an emotional televised eulogy at the 2000 funeral of his father. He entered parliament in 2008 and enjoyed a commanding poll lead for the first 18 months after he assumed the party leadership in 2013.
Conservatives have seized on Trudeau's perceived lack of substance, broadcasting a recent advertisement that depicts him as a job applicant who includes his photo with his resume and has a celebrity following, but "has some growing up to do."
The ad closes with a pitch-perfect: "Nice hair, though." Some Liberals privately say attacks like this have worked.
A string of verbal blunders by Trudeau, including jokes about the federal budget and air strikes on Islamic State, both of which backfired, may argue for the short leash.
"The serial gaffes were the worst. They helped bolster the view - now widely held - that Trudeau just wasn't ready," said Warren Kinsella, a pundit and former Liberal strategist, adding that poor handling and "a barf bag of policy" were all to blame.
But many Liberals argue it is too early to despair. An unusually long campaign is expected and the Liberals plan their own advertising blitz closer to the election.
"We're very much present on the ground," said Melanie Joly, a Quebec Liberal who helped Trudeau during his leadership campaign. "(He has been) rebuilding the Liberal party from its base, making sure that we have a very strong organization on the field."
Friends suggest people are underestimating Trudeau, and say his upbringing in a political fishbowl created a man who performs under pressure.
Marc Miller, 42, a Liberal candidate in Montreal who went to high school with Trudeau, said classmates and even a teacher at their prestigious private school used to challenge Trudeau as a proxy for his famous - and controversial - father.
"He's fine with being underestimated," Miller said. "He'd prefer that. He likes a challenge."
Another Quebec Liberal candidate said the underdog position will pay off when campaign debates begin in August.
"Justin has a big advantage," the candidate said. "All he has to do is remain standing and he is exceeding expectations."
(This version of the story corrects paragraph 3 to show that Trudeau is the father of three, not two, corrects paragraph 7 to show that all the members of Trudeau's inner circle are in their 30s or 40s, not just in their 40s.)
With additional reporting by Randall Palmer in Ottawa and writing by Andrea Hopkins in Toronto; Editing by Howard Goller