OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Liberal leader Stephane Dion, whose party is trailing the ruling Conservatives badly in the polls ahead of the Oct 14 election, stood his ground on Tuesday as rumblings of discontent with his campaign grew louder.
The campaign -- already marred by poor planning, difficulty communicating and an environmental tax message that has failed to capture the public’s imagination -- is now also being undermined by media stories of discord within party ranks.
Liberal officials, usually unnamed, are being quoted saying they made a mistake when they picked Dion, a former university professor, as a compromise candidate to be party leader in December 2006.
Dion tries to sweep the criticism aside.
“I (have) never been stopped by anonymous sources, and we have a mission to deliver for this country,” Dion told a news conference in Nova Scotia in answer to repeated questioning about unhappiness in the ranks.
The Liberals have run Canada longer than any other party but their performance in the current campaign is such that one pollster has even raised the possibility of them being driven into third place in the election standings.
Ekos pollster Paul Adams says his firm’s data showed “a dramatic tightening in the race for second spot, with the New Democrats now within striking distance of overtaking the Liberals.”
His most recent data showed the Conservatives, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, at 38 percent support and the Liberals at 23, with the left-of-center New Democrats at 19.
Other polls show a tighter race but they all put the Liberals behind by at least six points. In August, the two leading parties had been much closer, with some even showing the Liberals marginally ahead.
Perhaps the biggest problem for Dion, who is from the French-speaking province of Quebec, is his poor English, which sometimes leaves listeners scratching their heads and broadcasters scrambling for a good sound bite.
So far at least, he has failed to rally the country around his main plank of applying a carbon tax on fossil fuels to cut greenhouse emissions, accompanied by income tax cuts and subsidies for the poor.
To some extent it may simply be bad timing to seek to raise energy costs when they have already risen sharply, even though the carbon tax idea has been endorsed by a number of respected economists.
Sharpening his attack on Dion’s plan, Harper has gone the other way and has pledged to cut diesel taxes.
Seeking to dispel the notion of Liberal Party division, former leadership rival Bob Rae sang Dion’s praises at Tuesday’s campaign events in Nova Scotia.
But ironically, Rae’s greater charisma and ability to connect made the contrast with Dion even more striking.
“Dion would make a first-rate prime minister,” Akaash Maharaj, a former senior Liberal official who now teaches at the University of Toronto, told Reuters.
“Perhaps the tragedy of democracy is that to have the opportunity to be a first-rate prime minister one must first be a first-rate campaigner and political actor and those are clearly not Dion’s personal strengths.”
The Liberal party machine is also not as well-funded or organized as in the past. It was unable to match blanket Conservative advertising in the runup to the September 7 election call and was unable to get a campaign plane until halfway through the first week.
Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Peter Galloway