OTTAWA/COLLINGWOOD, Ontario (Reuters) - Canada’s Conservatives, reeling from a bad start to their reelection bid, have turned to a high-powered Australian political strategist known as "the Wizard of Oz" and pulled their campaign manager off the road and back to the Ottawa war room to help steady a listing ship, party insiders said.
A refresh of the campaign, aimed at clawing back lost ground at the midway point of an 11-week campaign, include a new string of attack ads brought forward to this weekend and sharper messaging on the negative outcome the Conservatives say Canadians would face if they vote for a different party on Oct. 19.
Hit with bad news including a lingering Senate corruption scandal, an emotional refugee crisis and a recession, the campaign playbook that won Prime Minister Stephen Harper three consecutive mandates looks to be failing.
"We haven't had a couple of good weeks. It's been a mess. We haven't managed to get our message out, what with the stories about refugees and candidates in trouble," said a senior Conservative familiar with the party's campaign strategy, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Two Conservative candidates dropped out this week after they were identified in embarrassing videos, including one who was caught on camera urinating into a coffee mug.
The government also came under fire after it emerged that the family of a Syrian toddler whose body washed up on a Turkish beach had wanted to emigrate to Canada. Insiders said the campaign misjudged the extent of emotional reaction in Canada to the issue.
"You play better offense than you do defense, and I think the prime minister has had to play more defense than he's liked," said strategist Tim Powers, a former Conservative policy director.
The Conservatives confidently kicked off an extended election campaign on Aug. 2 with a plan to outspend their left-of-center rivals – Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and the New Democratic Party led by Tom Mulcair - and convey a message of stability, but have watched support drop to third place and hopes for another majority government dissipate.
To help get that message back on track, the Conservatives have hired Lynton Crosby, who helped engineer British Prime Minister David Cameron's election win last May. Maclean's magazine said the strategist would take over framing the Conservatives' campaign message ahead of the Oct. 19 election. Conservative spokesman Kory Teneycke declined to confirm details but said Crosby had been with the campaign for a long time. He did not indicate how long.
Crosby's nickname refers to his homeland and campaign messaging skills. He also helped Boris Johnson become mayor of London and last month helped engineer victory in Sri Lanka's election.
"He's got a winning track record and has helped Conservatives (elsewhere) get to first place despite the odds. Why not have an extra hand? It shows no disrespect to the current crew," said a second Canadian Conservative Party source.
The source declined to be identified, on grounds of not having authority to speak to media.
Crosby guided Cameron to unexpected victory by focusing the British Conservative Party's message on economic stability. His strategy that "you can't fatten a pig on market day" meant voters were bombarded with a message in the hope that relentless repetition would help it "take."
Harper's oft-repeated message that Canada's Conservatives are the best fiscal stewards has been undermined by an economy that was in recession for the first half of 2015.
Meanwhile, Conservative campaign manager Jenni Byrne, who held prominent roles in all of Harper's national election victories, left Harper’s side on the campaign trail this week to return to the war room, where she will direct day-to-day operations and try to ensure a smoother execution of plans.
"There are a couple of surprises that maybe haven't been handled as smoothly as they could have been, but I don't think it's cause to give up, and I don't think anybody has," a third Conservative said.
Reporting by Randall Palmer and David Ljunggren; Editing by Tom Brown and Leslie Adler