VICTORIA, British Columbia (Reuters) - Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- who is considered unusually cool and aloof for a politician -- is striving to shed his shy habits and show Canadians he feels their pain over plunging stock markets and a slumping economy.
If he fails, he could botch his chances in the general election to be held on October 14, a vote that he has long been favored to win.
At the start of last week, Harper’s Conservatives had a healthy poll lead over the opposition Liberals. Then the markets sank and Canadians waited for Harper’s reaction.
He told them not to panic, to stay the course and trust that he was the best man to run the country. Amid a widespread perception he was being unfeeling, his poll numbers dropped.
So this week he is venturing into unfamiliar territory and putting his heart on his sleeve.
“The big numbers matter less than the individual reality, of the employee concerned about her job, for the family working hard to pay the mortgage and put food on the table, or the seniors worrying about their savings,” he told a rally in Hamilton, Ontario, on Tuesday evening.
Harper has cited his mother as an example of someone he knows is concerned about stock market’s turmoil.
“She’s the person closest to me who’s most worried about the stock market these days. Believe me, I get quicker updates from her on the stock market than I do from the Department of Finance,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
The sudden emphasis on Canadians’ everyday worries prompted rivals to mock what they said was a desperate gesture.
“He doesn’t do hope very well, he doesn’t do empathy very well, he doesn’t do understanding very well and frankly those are all qualities we expect in our leaders, particularly in a time of difficulty,” said Liberal legislator Bob Rae.
Rae told reporters that Harper’s comments were a “very cold breakfast and a cold shower to a lot of people who are looking for a leader who understands what’s happening to them”.
Harper aides say the charge is totally unfair. They say the prime minister is in touch with people’s worries.
“He knows that to show Canadians he shares their concerns -- and he does share them -- is as important as showing them what he’s doing (about the crisis),” said Kory Teneycke, Harper’s spokesman.
For seasoned Harper watchers, the shift to warmer language is abrupt. After all, he acknowledged on Tuesday he found it hard to show emotion.
Harper made fun of his shyness in 2006 when an opponent charged that he was trying to seduce legislators to change parties and join the Conservatives.
“I do not think I have ever been accused of seducing anyone, even my wife,” he told Parliament in reply, prompting gasps of disbelieving laughter.
Some Conservatives are appalled by what they say is the media’s unjustified demand that Harper show more emotion.
“In a time of uncertainty, people are less likely to trust the preachy ‘I feel your pain’ type of politician who promises solutions for a fantasy land ... than they are someone with a cool head, a focused plan and a determined approach,” party strategist Tim Powers said.
“Stephen Harper will never be Oprah, but neither will Oprah be called upon to lead Canada through uncertain times,” he wrote on the Globe and Mail newspaper’s website on Tuesday.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway